SI Vault
 
These Eagles Were Grounded
Ian Thomsen
October 18, 1999
The U.S., as expected, lost its first two matches in the World Cup
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 18, 1999

These Eagles Were Grounded

The U.S., as expected, lost its first two matches in the World Cup

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2

Three days before the match against Ireland, Clark presented the team with its final game plan. The Irish were 38-point favorites. Clark's hope was to keep them off balance with slightly unconventional play, such as punting the ball away to gain territory. The U.S. was going to try to run the ball from inside its 22-yard line, which, in NFL terms, is like trying to return a punt from inside your 10.

Defensively, knowing that they could not match up with the fierce Irish scrum, the Eagles would remove one or more of their athletic big men, such as Tardits and Lyle, from the scrum and position them like linebackers to pick up the Irish ballcarriers. Clark had been preparing the team to play this way, having figured all along what it would take to "turn the world upside down," as he referred to an American victory. If the U.S. played conventionally, it would be certain to lose.

George Sucher, a 30 year-old prop (one of those front-row players whose heads disappear like a turtle's when two teams thump together shoulder to shoulder in a scrum), was happy that in Dublin his fianc´┐Że, Christine Evans, would be attending her first game of international rugby. Having never seen Sucher play at the highest level, she was understandably suspicious of the time he was giving to the sport. "The American fans don't know what rugby is, what it means to go to another country and play in front of 30,000 people," said Sucher, a 6-foot, 250-pound computer software salesman. "My girlfriend's family doesn't understand. They think it's a little weird that I'm away so much. You know how it is when you miss family weddings."

At last their long-anticipated Saturday in Dublin arrived. In the early afternoon, hours before kickoff, the U.S. coaches and Lyle moved in a pack from room to room, emphasizing two or three points of strategy with each player. Each meeting ended with Lyle looking in his teammate's eyes and asking, "Can I count on you for 80 minutes?" Then he handed the player his match jersey, white with red trim and, across the shoulders, a sea of blue.

A wedding was being held in the hotel, and the guests applauded the players as they walked through the lobby. Outside on the steps a bagpiper saluted them with I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy. A police motorcycle escort rushed the team bus through traffic to Lansdowne Road, the stadium that is the traditional home of Irish rugby.

As the U.S. took the field, the clouds were a blushing pink in the twilight chill. A band played The Star-Spangled Banner as the 15 starters stood side by side on the field, hands over hearts, shouting out the lyrics, some with their eyes shut tight.

With no further pageantry the game began. It was never close. After the Irish scored 10 points, the Americans forced a fumble, which their smallest player, Kevin Dalzell, ran back from midfield for a try (the equivalent of a touchdown) to make the score 10-5. In the 26th minute Dalzell kicked a 40-yard penalty, not unlike a field goal, to keep the Eagles within 17-8. But the Irish were too strong.

Tardits and Lyle were effective in their linebacker roles, but there were too many options to be covered. It was like trying to defend against a pro offense, with not two backs coming out of the backfield but four or five or six, crisscrossing like a flock of birds and giving no clue as to which one would receive the pass. The Eagles tried to mimic their hosts but kept dropping their laterals in the punishing traffic of the Irish defense. In the end the Americans were running as if in ocean surf. The final score was 53-8.

The next morning Clark called a team meeting. "I could see in [the players'] eyes that they felt they had let people down," he says. "All I could tell them was, 'Hey, you were there, and someday you will be proud of that fact.' " Then he got on with preparing them to play Romania.

On Saturday, in Dublin, the Eagles lost again, 27-25. They rallied from a 10-point deficit to Romania in the final 13 minutes. They had chances to tie the game or win it outright. Although they didn't do either, they felt they were improving dramatically. Still, most of them realized that in a week, after an almost certain loss to Australia, they would be back at their jobs, with the chimes ringing on their trip to Ireland, and an eternity of four years to wait until the next World Cup.

1 2