Two years ago, when Lt. Comdr. Lin Walton, a U.S. Navy helicopter pilot, was touring New Zealand with his rugby club and playing against provincial teams, he was asked, "What is the greatest thing you could do in rugby?" Walton replied, "To play against the All Blacks in my hometown of San Diego, in front of my family and friends, as a member of the Eagles." He didn't say anything about winning.
It was a ridiculous idea, as Walton well knew. He was already 32 years old, and the Eagles, the U.S. national rugby team, had shown little interest in him. Besides, the mighty All Blacks, the best side in the world, would never deign to play a team that in its five years of existence had a record of 1-7 in international competition. The All Blacks, in 77 years, were 129-50-11. They had played a U.S. team only once in the U.S., in 1913, beating those all-stars 51-3. But the rugby brotherhood is strong. The All Blacks, planning a trip to Wales, astounded the sport's U.S. Establishment last Sept. 26 with an offer to stop in California for a warmup. And Walton, through a fortuitous combination of his outstanding play and injuries to others, was suddenly soaring with the Eagles. It remained to be seen how high they could go together when they faced the New Zealanders last week in—you got it—San Diego.
The All Blacks' tour came at the end of their season, and the Eagles had not played together since June, when their season concluded. But before the match Eagle Manager Bob Watkins said of the visitors, "They're scared to death. They've got everything to lose by playing us and nothing to gain. But win or lose, we'll be pushed farther into the international sphere and out of an era when U.S. rugby was just a social sport."
Jay Hansen, an Eagle hooker (the equivalent, roughly, of a football center), put it this way, "As for getting gross and bizarre, it just doesn't happen at this level anymore."
Certainly the voice of Jeff Hollings, another Eagle hooker, was a sober one. Born in New Zealand and now an engineer in Albany, Calif., Hollings began playing rugby at the age of five, not unusual for a boy Down Under, but rare for an Eagle, few of whom started before the age of 20. "The American game has developed," he said, "but we still haven't learned how to combat the finesse of the overseas teams."
Andy Haden, the All Blacks' 6'7", 238-pound lock (rugby's answer to football's offensive guard) was playing at the age of five, too. "Every small boy in New Zealand wants to be an All Black," he said, "and I was no different. That's why our standards are so high. Being an All Black is like being a New York Yankee." Apparently no one had told Haden about the Kansas City Royals.
As for other American sports, three days before the Eagles' game the All Blacks saw the San Diego Chargers lose to the Buffalo Bills. The reactions of New Zealand's Andy Dalton to his first taste of the NFL were typical. "In that game you've got guys who never touch the ball," he said. "The only thing going for that game is all those Sheilas out there waving their arms." As for the Eagles, Dalton said, "I've heard all sorts of things. I suppose they'll show us a few of those gridiron passes."
The Eagles were thinking only of rugby. In practice they tested themselves on a device called a Gutbuster Scrum Machine—designed to replicate the other side in a scrum. It consists of four leather pads for shoulders to rest on, and is mounted on two mighty springs. Everything is bolted to a two-foot-thick post. Coach Ray Cornbill would call out "ready-aah" before each of three successive assaults. More than once Cornbill said, "The last two were really good. See how far the springs went in? But against the All Blacks the first push may be the most important."
"Lots of our guys are practice-weary and game-fit," said the Eagles' team physician, Dr. John Chase. He was certainly half right. The Eagles lineup had been selected after a hard-fought test game only four days before the showdown against the All Blacks; U.S. rugby is still too poor to have held the trials any earlier.
On the eve of the game the Eagles were summoned to a kangaroo court. "These guys are all knotted up. This will help them to laugh and relax," Cornbill explained. Brian Swords was a 6'9" Horrible Hanging Judge, with a rugby shoe for a gavel. He fined Assistant Coach Rod Sears 75� for "impersonating a shrink"; the previous day, during stretching exercises, Sears had made the mistake of saying, "Close your eyes and relax." Swords took an equal amount from Hollings "for impersonating an American"; Hollings had said "thdeen" instead of "thirteen," and "fore and arft" instead of "forward and backward." And Walton, dubbed Media Man because, as the local hero on the Eagles, he was so heavily pursued by San Diego journalists, was hit for $3.75 for having told a reporter that rugby was less important to him than his family.