- Associated Press - Monday, October 5, 2015

LONDON (AP) - The bus was as quiet as a tomb. On board were the United States Eagles, returning to their hotel in Leeds after their second and most maddening loss at the Rugby World Cup.

Scotland, a team they’d never beaten, had been in their crosshairs. The U.S. took a well-deserved 13-6 lead into the changing room at halftime … and left it there. Within seven minutes, the Scots scored two tries, regained the lead and the momentum before eventually winning 39-16.

At previous World Cups, the Americans would have pat each other’s backs for giving a top-tier team a real scare.

But times are changing.

Alcohol isn’t allowed on the team bus after games anymore, so instead of imbibing there was introspection. No longer is playing well in a losing cause considered good enough.



Their quarterfinals goal is out of reach again - the Eagles have never advanced out of the pool stage - but they still have other boxes to tick with games remaining against South Africa on Wednesday and Japan on Sunday.

“We have two games left to prove how far we’ve come,” said lock Louis Stanfill, an Eagle at his third Rugby World Cup. “The last two games (against Samoa and Scotland), we let ourselves down. But the direction we’re going in, future World Cups hold a large amount of promise for us, and Americans tend to fulfil that promise.”

That’s a fair boast.

Stanfill has bounced around overseas clubs, and noticed progression each time he’s gone home. It’s been a long, hard road, he noted, to raise the expectations of the home-based amateurs, improve their training, and then demand the coaching staff blend them with the overseas professionals, find the right game plan, and cultivate chemistry and an ethos in the national team.

“From 2014 to now, we’ve developed a winning culture, where we understand if we want to be excellent we have to train excellent,” he said. “We have to do things that normal rugby players wouldn’t do, and that has now become a constant.”

It’s true the Eagles have greater depth than previously, so that when France-based Scott LaValla broke his arm and former captain Todd Clever was dropped before the World Cup, that wasn’t as crippling to the team as it would have been in the past.

Much was made of the 31-man squad containing 20 players at their first World Cup, including the uncapped Joe Taufete’e, one of six props chosen. And while there were less overseas pros than at the 2011 Cup, many had played overseas, and the team was far more experienced than four years ago. There were 10 holdovers from 2011, and there ought to be a lot more for the 2019 event in Japan.

Coach Mike Tolkin had only praise for his team’s work ethic and morale after three months together. He just wants them to string more good moments together in matches. He loved the team’s attitude, too: No fear.

“We’ve gone after it, kept involved for 80 minutes even when patches of games haven’t gone our way,” Tolkin said. “Guys haven’t thrown in the towel. That’s a really important foundation for any successful team.”

Rugby’s foundation in America is encouraging, too. There are more than 450,000 players and 2,588 clubs registered with USA Rugby. About 40 percent of the clubs are at colleges, where the game first flourished in the 1870s. And there’s been a recent resurgence - from 2010 to 2014, 180 colleges and universities added teams.

Even more heartening, more than 67,000 high school students are registered players. Perhaps the issue in American football of concussions and head injuries has made rugby more attractive.

From 2008 to 2013, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, participation in American football dropped by 21.1 percent, and grew in rugby by 81 percent. Over 2013-2014 alone, rugby grew by 10.7 percent, adding 79,000 new players.

Stanfill has seen this explosion firsthand.

“Each year for the last three years, I’ve seen a bit more development, a bit more of that baseline skill level, baseline understanding of the game, rise,” he said. “Now you’re seeing high school kids who have been playing for eight years, and by the time they get done with university, their understanding of the game is going to be much higher than mine.”

But one doesn’t have to look at industry statistics to appreciate rugby’s growth in America, said Zach Test, one of five Eagles from the full-time U.S. Sevens program in San Diego.

“Just look at the first half of the Scotland game, that will tell you everything you need to know,” Test said. “We punched a Tier One nation right in the face for the first 40 minutes. Throughout our history, we’ve never really done that, and that says we’re coming.”

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