(Colorado Springs, Colorado) 17 November 1997 -- The US National Team's 1997 season drew to a close this weekend with the team's annual report to USA Rugby's 35-member Board of Directors. General Manager and Head Coach Jack Clark headed up the team's multimedia presentation at the union's annual meeting in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The report included a critical review of the playing season, a thorough accounting of the team's administrative affairs, and a detailed look at the team's upcoming activities.
The 1997 campaign really began with the union's first-ever National Trials camp in December 1996 in Las Vegas, Nevada, entirely organized and paid for by the National Team. Forty-four mostly uncapped players underwent physical testing, trained, and scrimmaged under the watchful eyes of three former National Team coaches plus the current staff. Ten trialists subsequently joined the US in the next month's tour of Wales, while three more declined the opportunity.
In January, the US National Team made its first trip to Wales since 1987. The tourists split their warmup games, falling to Neath but upending Welsh champion Pontypridd before taking on Wales in Cardiff Arms Park, one week before the start of the Five Nations. The out-of-season Eagles pulled to within 17-14 on a brilliant second-half try by halfback Andre Bachelet, but surrendered two late scores to fall 34-14. "I'm proud of the team," Clark commented afterward. "It was a gutsy if not precise performance. We had some wonderful moments in the match, but full marks to Wales."
Ten years ago, the US lost to Wales 44-0.
In the spring and summer, the US overcame a sluggish start to win all but one of its last four games and finish the 1997 Canterbury of New Zealand Pacific Rim Rugby Championship with a 3-3 record, a mark identical to its 1996 showing. Facing the Pacific Rim's most difficult schedule--consecutive road matches in Vancouver and Asia opened the season--the US dropped its initial matches to Canada and Hong Kong by surprisingly large margins. But the injury-riddled Eagle tour squad then registered an equally improbable victory over a Japanese outfit coming off a victory over Canada to begin a three-game win streak.
In the season finale against Canada, looking to catch its archrival at four wins each, the US was very much in the hunt until a controversial send-off left the hosts a player short and allowed the Maple Leafs to escape with a 22-11 win.
Commenting on the 1997 Pacific Rim season, Clark got right to the point. "We don't want to sidestep the fact that we played poorly in our first two matches. Although there are extenuating circumstances which led to this performance, it's enough for now to say we played badly. On the other hand, I was very proud of the team in the last four games of the competition. 4-0 would have been better than 3-1, but we competed hard in each of these matches."
Working patiently through several tour-threatening developments just weeks beforehand, in July the US welcomed Wales to America for the first time since 1980. Two second-half tries by flyhalf Arwel Thomas helped the tourists extend an 18-13 halftime lead into a 30-20 win in the opening test in Wilmington, North Carolina. The tour then moved on to San Francisco, where Wales downed a USA Developmental XV featuring seven collegians and 15 current or past All-Americans by 55-23. In the final test, played before a sellout crowd and taped for same-day television, Vaea Anitoni's second-half try tied the contest at 23, before wing Wayne Proctor's third score let Wales escape with a 28-23 win.
"I told the team they've developed a standard they should be proud of," Clark said after the second test. "The results we all crave will follow a performance very similar to the one the team put in today."
"The Americans were well-organized and very aggressive, and put in some big hits," added Welsh coach Kevin Bowring.
Thirty players were capped during the course of eight games in a ten-week international season -- the longest assembly in the history of the National Team -- and another nine were part of the team's nearly continuous training regime. Eight of the 30 caps appeared in their first internationals, coming to the National Team from every sector of US rugby: Chip Curtis and Alatini Saulala from the 1996 Las Vegas trials camp, Jon Holtzman, Dan Kennedy, and Mike Stanaway from the Harp League, Mika McLeod from the US club championships, and 1997 Woodley award-winner Kurt Shuman and Scott Yungling from the collegiate ranks. Shuman, who joined the US squad last September, was the second straight Woodley winner (following Kevin Dalzell) to have trained with the National Team before becoming the college player of the year.
Injuries cost the Eagles the services of stalwarts Rob Lumkong and Alec Parker for the entire season, and Tom Billups, Brian Hightower, and several others for at least two games. Unavailability also continued to play a role: Some of America's best and most promising players could not commit to almost 10 straight weeks away from work.
"Our European-based professional players played well, and our new caps showed good promise," Clark summarized of the spring-summer schedule. Speaking of America's most prominent overseas player, Bath and USA flanker Dan Lyle, Clark noted that "Dan performed especially well, and did a superb job of captaining the team through the competition. In a community where we build people up so we can tear them down, he left the critics little to complain about."
Off the field, the US National Team's small administrative staff, led by Clark and Team Manager Michael de Jong, continued to make strides. Some fifty players and game staff took part in the ten-week assembly, while the Eagles further hosted the three visiting Pacific Rim countries and also Wales. The National Team managed to come in under budget and exceed revenue expectations while introducing new program features.
The year's most dramatic improvement was the continued advance of television broadcasting: All home US National Team games were televised by Fox Sports Net. The easily accessible, same-day coverage proved a boon for rugby fans in the United States, surpassing last year's coverage, which lacked the same audience. The US also sold out two of its five home games, another record, and continued to introduce well-received marketing and media programs.
Although the Eagles won't take the field again until 1998, since the close of the July Welsh tour the National Team's staff has been concentrating on the upcoming Inter-Territorial Tournament in Tampa, Florida. Long a top priority for the National Team, the revived championship will bring together Clark, de Jong, and assistant coach Eddie O'Sullivan as well as the National Team's Selection Panel, headed by Ray Cornbill. The senior group also includes George Betzler, Al Little, National Technical Panel chair Ron Mayes, and Jim Perkins, all of whom have previously coached the US National Team.
But it's not just the staff that's looking forward to the ITT. Reached in England, US captain Lyle enthused about the December event, hoping the elite competition will spur American-based Eagles to get ready for the fast-approaching 1998 international season, even while a new crop of National Team candidates comes to the fore. "The best playing the best--that's what makes the ITT great," said Lyle, who helped the old Eastern territory to a shared championship in the last ITT, held in 1994. "I was stoked by how well the Developmental XV played against Wales last summer, and I'm sure some of those boys and some new guys too will show us they're ready in Tampa."
The National Team's report to the Board also covered the team's overall business operations, the state of world rugby and the USA's place in the international hierarchy, and events upcoming in 1998. It further featured a frank question-and-answer session.
"In the main, the full report serves as a detailed accounting of the National Team's activities," summarized Clark. "Our previous annual reports have been constructive and pleasant exchanges between the National Team and the Board. I'm convinced that the more the Board knows about the business of the National Team, the more helpful they can be."