In a renovated castle south of Dublin, in the Irish coastal village of Killiney, sat 30 jet-lagged Americans. Among them were seven college students, an engineer, a miner, an interior designer and four rugby professionals. Together these men were 2,500-to-1 long shots to win the world's third-most-watched sporting event, the Rugby World Cup.
To all the world Team USA—also known as the Eagles—might as well have been convening belowdecks on the Titanic. That's how much of a chance they were given to survive the opening round of the World Cup. Three matches had been scheduled for the Eagles, and they were underdogs in all of them, starting with an Oct. 2 game against Ireland, in Dublin. The second match, against Romania last Saturday, would be followed in five days by a likely thrashing at the hands of Australia, the 1991 champion and a 5-2 choice to win this time. ( New Zealand, England and South Africa were the other favorites to take the final on Nov. 6 in Cardiff, Wales.)
To prepare themselves for the World Cup, the Eagles had traveled to Britain in August for a series of "friendly" matches. But against England's World Cup team the play got unusually serious, and the U.S. wound up losing 106-8. Which means that a lot of people were happy to welcome the U.S. team to Ireland last month.
The customary approach for a team as overmatched as the Eagles would be to focus all its energies on the one tournament foe it was capable of beating. Romania was taking this approach, openly targeting the U.S. For Romania to think of upsetting Ireland or Australia was "unrealistic," explained coach Mircea Paraschiv. Fellow underdogs Spain and Uruguay were raising similar white flags, as if pleading for mercy before the first whistle.
There was no shame in these concessions. It takes amazing courage to play rugby at the highest level. It is a sport of violent collisions, with just a thin layer of padding under the uniforms and no huddles for catching one's breath between plays. The players are not quite of NFL girth (backs usually weigh about 200 pounds, forwards 240), but they are very big, considering the demands of running up and down the field for 80 minutes.
U.S. coach Jack Clark laid out the team's options. Should we play conservatively and accept defeat against Ireland, he asked his players, to save our best efforts for Romania? The players answered soberly and unanimously: absolutely not. They decided that they should try to beat Ireland. They had come too far, sacrificed too much, not to give their all in every match.
"This is what is so beautiful about the American mentality," says Richard Tardits, 34, a French-born U.S. resident who spent four NFL seasons as a linebacker for the Arizona Cardinals and the New England Patriots before returning to the sport of rugby and joining the Eagles in 1993. "As long as we are not dead, we always believe that we have a chance."
Four years ago, at the last World Cup, rugby was still officially an amateur sport. It was against the rules to pay players (although the best of them were paid anyway). But with escalating television revenue, mostly from Rupert Murdoch, the International Rugby Board voted in August 1995 to make rugby "open" to all players. A dozen of the top rugby nations, including Ireland, quickly made their players professionals. The Irish ruggers didn't get rich—their biggest star, Keith Wood, was said to be making less than $200,000 in salary and endorsements—but for the first time they were making careers of the sport.
The U.S. team, in the meantime, has fielded only four men who play rugby professionally, in Britain and Italy. Among these four, the only world-class player is 6'4", 245-pound captain Dan Lyle (SI, Sept. 6), who earns about $200,000 from the English club Bath. The other 26 Eagles have full-time jobs or are students. Not many team sports are left in which amateurs line up alongside pros, especially for a world championship. The Eagles are among the last of a dying breed.
Between practices and team meetings during the World Cup, the Eagles checked their E-mail and voice mail and phoned their offices in the States. Fly-half Mark Williams, 38, the team's oldest player, figured he was losing $3,500 during his four-week absence from his interior-design business in Aspen, Colo.