A first: 18 Olympic rugby players competing at World CupCanada's DTH Van Der Merwe tries to gain control of the ball against Canada's Martin Iosefo and Marcel Brache during the first half of a rugby match in Vancouver, British Columbia, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)
There's a sense that this is the best team the United States has ever sent to a Rugby World Cup.
The Americans won an unprecedented nine straight games in 2018, one against an experimental Scotland lineup in Houston for a first ever win over one of the sport's Tier One nations.
Slotted into a merciless Pool C with England, France, Argentina, and Tonga, the Americans are initially tipped to leave empty-handed for a second straight World Cup, but beating Scotland has given them a lingering dose of confidence that they can pull off a surprise, or two, in Japan.
That confidence was on display recently while beating Canada 47-19 and Samoa 13-10. They fell to Japan 34-20 in the final of the Pacific Nations Cup, but coach Gary Gold liked the performance, especially the 80-minute effort.
Since then, the World Cup squad has been upgraded with the return of the likes of David Ainu'u, who trained with the Eagles while in high school and now props at Toulouse; Worcester's Joseph Taufete'e, who eclipsed Keith Wood to become the hooker with the most test tries (17 in 15 games); and Titi Lamositele, the prop who became the youngest Eagle ever at 18 in 2013 and attracted Saracens to sign him.
The backline also features former NFL running back Paul Lasike, Free State Cheetahs scrumhalf Ruben de Haas, and Sale playmaker AJ MacGinty.
Unlike France, the Eagles' World Cup preparations have been relatively smooth.
Those preparations included a third consecutive win over archrival Canada this year. In March, the Americans needed a 60-meter break by Mike Te'o finished by a dummy run off a scrum by de Haas to edge Canada 30-25. There was the big PNC win, and this month they came from 12-0 down to win 20-15 capped by a Martin Iosefo try eight minutes from the end.
It used to be Canada always prevailing in this rivalry. The Americans had to bow regularly to the Canadians' superiority from their first test in 1977. The Eagles won only once in eight years until 2014 when their increasing professionalism overtook Canada in terms of experience, skills, and attitude.
The Eagles have now gone unbeaten in their last 12 matchups.
Canada's slow decline was underlined as the last team to qualify for the World Cup, winning the last-ditch tournament in November against Germany, Hong Kong, and Kenya. The Canadians ensured they have never missed the Rugby World Cup, but they had to go the long route.
Previously, Canada qualified at the first hurdle, and usually at the expense of the Americans. But Canada was denied by the Americans in mid-2017, and then by Uruguay.
The relief at qualifying was evident by the players and administrators who rely badly on the funds World Rugby provides teams that make the World Cup.
The reward for the players is a schedule that hardly lets them breathe. Like the Americans, they don't get started until the tournament is almost a week old. Canada starts in Pool B against Italy, and will play four games in 17 days, including the All Blacks and Springboks. Canada finishes with Namibia, and both teams will believe it is their most winnable fixture.
Canada has seven wins at the World Cup, but only one in the last 16 years.
''We've got to go to the World Cup and perform,'' Canada captain Phil Mack urges.
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