(Berkeley, California) 8 August 1998 -- Hooker Tom Billups leads the United States into this month's World Cup qualifying matches, as the 1998 Eagles hope to become the first to play their way into the finals.
Thirty players including captain Billups will take on Canada, Uruguay, and host Argentina in a round-robin tournament to be played in eight days, beginning August 15 in Buenos Aires, US general manager and head coach Jack Clark said today.
Only three--Billups, wing Vaea Anitoni, and flyhalf Mark Williams--remain from the 1994 qualifiers, when two losses to the Pumas denied the team a place in the 1995 finals. US appearances in the 1987 and 1991 World Cup finals came by invitation, before the world's championship added preliminary rounds.
An unending string of injuries, poor form during the Pacific Rim, and of course the team's planned progession over the 1998 season mean that the squad has changed quite a bit this year. Nearly 60 players have been called into camp. Nonetheless, the US looked to be headed in the right direction during last month's 18-9 road loss to Fiji, and much of the World Cup qualifying squad comes from those who are playing well when it counts.
Of the Eagle big guns, only flanker Dan Lyle and center Tom Takau were ruled out by injury.
In the tight five, 1998 debut internationals George Sucher and John McBride join Ray Lehner and Bill LeClerc at prop. Young Kirk Khasigian, who looked ready in Fiji, plays understudy to skipper Billups at hooker. Red-hot Luke Gross, Alec Parker, Cliff Vogl, and Aspen newcomer Bob LeClerc make up the second row.
Number eights Rob Lumkong and Jason Walker and flankers Dave Hodges and Fifita Mounga headline the backrow group. Shaun Paga returns from injury, but with Lyle out, Jon Holtzman gets the call-up and Aspen breakaway Dougald Gillies comes to the team for the first time. The Colorado side have won the last two national championships.
Fiji tourists Britt Howard and Kevin Dalzell are the halfbacks, while Williams and 1997 Wales tourist Ian Stevens will battle for the number ten position. Ray Green, Juan Grobler, Alatini Saulala, and versatile Kurt Shuman make up the midfield.
Vaea Anitoni, Andre Blom, the returned Brian Hightower, Chris Morrow, and Steve Hiatt comprise the deep three. Blom and Morrow both missed chunks of the Pacific Rim, while Hightower's first game back from injury came in Fiji. With Takau sidelined, international 7s veteran Hiatt is called back into the squad for the first time in several years.
Later today, the team assembles in Denver for two days of training, before departing for Buenos Aires. The USA's bid to qualify for the 1999 World Cup opens with daunting Argentina next Saturday.
United States: Forwards: Tom Billups (captain), Dougald Gillies, Luke Gross, Dave Hodges, Jon Holtzman, Kirk Khasigian, Bill LeClerc, Bob LeClerc, Ray Lehner, Rob Lumkong, John McBride, Fifita Mounga, Shaun Paga, Alec Parker, George Sucher, Cliff Vogl, Jason Walker.
Backs: Vaea Anitoni, Andre Blom, Kevin Dalzell, Ray Green, Juan Grobler, Steve Hiatt, Brian Hightower, Britt Howard, Chris Morrow, Alatini Saulala, Kurt Shuman, Ian Stevens, Mark Williams.