At Bath, Lyle's learning curve was "exponential, almost inverted," he says. He was man of the match in his first-team debut, a nationally televised showdown against rival Harlequins, and soon took over as the starting number 8, a position right behind the scrum that demands the skills of both a fullback and a middle linebacker. At the end of the 1996-97 season he was named the English Premiership's newcomer of the year and one of five finalists for player of the year. That was nothing, though, compared with the following season, when Lyle led Bath to a 19-18 victory over the French club Brive in the European championship before 50,000 fans in Bordeaux, France.
Lyle's astonishing rugby feats have spawned wild-eyed conjecture among the sport's American fans: What if more football players took up rugby? "They all say overseas that whenever we take this game seriously, we'll beat everyone, and it's true," says Lyle. "If I could get some All-Pros and train them in rugby, we'd go out and kick ass. Hell, I'll take all those guys who were second-team All-SEC but didn't make the NFL, guys who don't want to work for $25,000 a year at Kmart when they could be full-time athletes making $100,000, playing a sport that's pretty damn fun."
That said, he won't have them for the five-week-long Rugby World Cup, the world's third-most-watched sporting event (behind soccer's World Cup and the Olympics). Besides Lyle, the only U.S. player who was a football standout is French-born flanker Richard Tardits, who became the alltime sack leader at Georgia and had a four-year NFL career with the Arizona Cardinals and the New England Patriots. Despite a recent 106-8 loss to England, the Americans are optimistic. Ranked 17th in the world, they have upset Canada, Fiji and Tonga this year, a remarkable feat for a World Cup team that doesn't field an entire lineup of professional players. (The unpaid players on the U.S. roster include two landscapers, a substitute teacher, a miner and a chiropractor.)
The Yanks have gone 1-5 in their two World Cup appearances, in 1987 and '91, and if they are to fulfill their goal of reaching the second round this year, they'll almost certainly have to win twice: against Ireland in their Oct. 2 opener—in Dublin—and against Romania. (The Eagles' other opponent in the first-round round-robin is Australia, a tournament favorite.) "We're playing against guys who've played the game since they were five and have every resource," says Lyle. "We don't have that, but we do have a great will."
They also have a transcendent player, one who's making from $200,000 to $250,000 a year and has no regrets about dissing the NFL. "No one's going to offer me a million dollars to play American football, and I'd never give up the experiences I've had in rugby," says Lyle. Besides, he has at least two World Cups in his future, and he points out that rugby may reappear in the 2004 Olympics after an 80-year hiatus. "Did you know we're the reigning Olympic champions?" he says. " Paris, 1924. I'll bet nobody in America knows that."
Nobody in America knows Dan Lyle, either. The way he's taking over his new sport, that may be about to change.