(Berkeley, California) 2 July 1997 -- Winning all but one of its last four games, the US National Team finished 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.
Looking in the season finale against its archrival to catch Canada 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 win.
Commenting on the 1997 season, US coach Jack 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."
Now two years old, the four-team Pacific Rim proved a much stronger competition this season, as well a conference in which road wins are still hard to come by. Taking advantage of relaxed eligibility regulations, Hong Kong and Japan utilized players like former Wallaby Chris Gordon and former All Black Steve Gordon, respectively, to improve their starting XVs. For the first time in recent years Canada was able to get all of its top players home from Europe and Japan, and showed itself the side the world knows Canada can be.
Though fewer of its players are based overseas, the US too was able to bring home stars like number eight Dan Lyle and halfback Andre Bachelet, part of a group beginning to make a name for America in the larger world of rugby. But unavailability continued to play a role: Some of America's best and most promising players simply can't commit to almost 10 straight weeks away from work (the eight-week Pacific Rim campaign plus two more weeks preparing for the upcoming Welsh tests).
Thirty players were capped during the course of six games, and another nine were part of the team's nearly continuous training regime. 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.
Eight of the 30 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, is the second straight Woodley winner (following Kevin Dalzell) to have trained with the National Team before becoming the college player of the year.
After assembling the team and getting everybody back on the same page, the US clearly benefited from the British playing experience of Lyle and company, and also got improved mileage out of those competing for the 14 Harp League teams, which finally gives the country an adequate club competition. On the whole, however, American players remain less prepared for the test level than their Pacific Rim rivals because they get fewer "hard and fast" club or select-side matches, something that could be alleviated by the continuation of the Harp League and also December's resumption of the Inter-Territorial Tournament (ITT), which the National Team long pushed for.
"Looking ahead," coach Clark continued, "our European-based professional players played well, and our new caps showed good promise." Speaking of America's most prominent overseas player, Bath and USA number eight 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."