If, like Rob Duncanson, you have been playing rugby for a mere two years, the stadium at Twickenham is intimidating, as befits the world headquarters of the sport. The stands are gaunt and towering, and the eddies of wind they create flutter the banners of the rugby nations of the world—from the French tricolor to the Southern Cross of New Zealand. The grass is a perfection of light-and dark-green bands. For someone like Duncanson, seeing Twickenham for the first time, the only protection against instant intimidation is to repeat, as a kind of mantra, a phrase that you've picked up:
Billy Williams' cabbage patch.
It doesn't work for long, of course. It is more than 70 years since Billy bought this piece of ground in southwest London for his club, the Harlequins, and the cabbage-patch slur is untrue—it was an apple orchard. But Billy wouldn't know it now. It holds almost 80,000, compared with the 3,000 he catered for, and deep in its interior it houses the oak-paneled committee room of the Rugby Football Union, hung with oil paintings of long-dead players in knee breeches. It looks, and is, as exclusive as any great London club. "I'd have given an eyetooth to get here," said Duncanson with awe. He paused thoughtfully. "And tomorrow I might have to do just that. Holy Columbo! Just another 24 hours!"
"Twenty-five hours," somebody corrected him. No sense in speeding up the ultimate test, a huge test indeed for the infant U.S.A. Rugby Football Union, which came into being only in 1975. On Saturday afternoon, right there at Twickenham, Duncanson and his colleagues on the U.S. national team—the Eagles—would meet England. Actually, this English side was more than half composed of players who had represented their country in international competition, and the rest were strong contenders for positions on the team that will wear England's colors during the international season, which begins after Christmas.
Although the USARFU is new, rugby has been played in America since before the start of this century. In fact, the U.S. has one sublime score to look back on with pride. That was U.S.A. 17, France 3 for the gold medal at the Paris Olympics of 1924, the last Games at which rugby was played. France was heavily favored, and the contest was played in front of a hostile crowd that spat on the U.S. players, who themselves had been robbed of everything they owned during a training session. Two American spectators were even beaten up and thrown from the stadium onto the pitch.
Sadly, that seemed to be the final moment of glory. Football, once banned as an intercollegiate sport by Teddy Roosevelt, reasserted itself in the 1920s, and rugby faded, though it never disappeared entirely, especially in California. But the sport has quietly been growing over the last decade. There are some 30,000 players in the more than 600 U.S. clubs. Significantly, a major part of rugby's appeal is its amateurism, its happy-go-lucky, anti-Establishment nature. And that is fine, of course, if all you are interested in is a healthful afternoon and a beer bash afterward. But that goes nowhere toward reaching international rugby standards, and Eagle Coach Dennis Storer, who teaches phys ed at UCLA, is a little impatient with this view of the game. "One has a choice," he says. "I feel that American rugby should be more intense, more systematic, while holding on to the amateur character of the game, which is close to being unique amongst major sports. A difficult combination."
The assets which the Eagles took to England for their six-match tour seemed impressive. They were explosive runners with the ball. They tackled magnificently. They had, it was rumored, two potentially world-class players: South African-born Mike Halliday from Palmer Junior College in Iowa and a giant of a forward, Bill Fraumann, 6'5" and 224 pounds, who once played college basketball for Michigan. But what they did not have, it was quickly apparent, was very much technical sophistication.
Hilaire Belloc once summed up the English Midlands with two liverish adjectives. "Sodden and unkind," he called them. When the Eagles look back on their tour, they will undoubtedly endorse that verdict.
Until they played at Coventry in a mean, thin drizzle of rain, the Eagles had held their own, or close to it. They had won their first game 15-6 against a Civil Service select side that was less polite than its name implied. In their second match they had by far the better of the game territorially but suffered the narrowest of defeats, 12-11 to Cornwall, one of the most roughhewn of the English county teams. "It was tragic," Storer said. "We totally dominated them. We scored two superb touch-downs, but then Halliday had to go off with a pulled hamstring after the second. The Cornishmen were embarrassed that they had won."
Still, Storer had begun to worry about his club's technical failings, due, simply, to lack of experience in the modern game. In the set pieces of rugby, the scrimmages and the line-outs, which happen when the ball goes out of play over the sidelines, the American forwards were not getting the ball so they could feed their attacking backs. "We've made a strong effort," Storer said, "and we've looked very explosive. But they've murdered us in the technical areas."
Sheer spirit had helped in the first two games, but in the sodden and unkind Midlands, in the industrial city of Coventry—where only the brilliant jewel of the new cathedral, built after fire bombs in 1940 had destroyed the ancient one, stands out from the anonymous shopping centers and the tangle of freeways—the modest euphoria felt by the Eagles was rudely shattered.