- Associated Press - Thursday, September 10, 2015

As Mike Tolkin prepared his U.S. Eagles for their last warm-up match for the Rugby World Cup, he spoke about the visit by Australia as being the second shot of a one-two punch.

The Eagles hosted World Cup-champion New Zealand last November to attract new American fans, and the All Blacks provided all the entertainment. Back at Soldier Field again this month, the Eagles lost heavily to the No. 2-ranked Wallabies but not until after putting a little scare in the visitors in the first half. The second couldn’t conceal the kind of team deficiencies that trouble Tolkin.

The lapses and basic handling errors were costly.

And so after a preparation that included back-to-back wins over Canada, a drought-breaking victory over Japan, and losses to Samoa and Tonga, the Eagles need to regroup ahead of their World Cup Group B opener against Samoa on Sept. 20.

The United States has qualified for all but one Rugby World Cup, but has never seriously threatened to advance beyond the pool stage. Reaching the knockout rounds is Tolkin’s stated goal this time.

To achieve that in England, the Eagles will have to beat either Scotland or Samoa for the first time to have any chance of progressing out of a group that is expected to be topped by two-time champion South Africa.

And while the Americans have improved significantly in the high-speed sevens rugby - the format to be played at next year’s Olympics - they’re still very much second-tier in the traditional 15-a-side game.

The early physical intensity and some of the bone-jarring hits were impressive from the Americans, but the tactical errors and lack of professionalism were costly against Australia.

“The fact we’re talking about this game getting away from us, being in a position to either win or bring it down to the wire, is a positive sign,” Tolkin said. “The fact we were doing things to put ourselves in a position to be within reach at the end is a good thing.

“That’s a good sign of the progress we’ve made.”

Progress was also seen when Tolkin wouldn’t tolerate disruption, and stripped flanker Todd Clever of the captaincy then dropped him altogether in June for missing consecutive training sessions. The popular face of U.S. rugby for most of the past decade, Clever’s penalty galvanized the side.

The captaincy passed to Chris Wyles, who earned his 50th cap against Australia, and will lead a 31-man squad containing 21 World Cup rookies. He’ll be relying on support from experienced scrumhalf Mike Petri, winger Taku Ngwenya, Mate Moeakiola and Louis Stanfill, who’ll be involved in their third World Cup campaigns.

There’s also Samu Manoa, the Toulon loose forward who was prevented from appearing in 2011 by a club contract.

Wyles would have had Scott LaValla, too, but the Stade Francais back-rower and first-pick Eagle broke an elbow in training.

Ngwenya’s try against South Africa in 2007, when he finished off a length-of-the-field team move by beating Springboks speedster Bryan Habana for pace, remains a World Cup highlight for the Eagles, and the Zimbabwe-born flyer is still showing signs of causing trouble for opposing tacklers.

Two of the Eagles’ three wins in World Cup matches have been against Japan - its first match in 1987 and again in Australia in 2003 - and the other was against Russia in 2011.

The Americans have lost all five matches they’ve played against pool-mate Scotland, all four against Samoa, and all three against South Africa, leaving Japan as the only team in the group that the Eagles have beaten in a test.

The U.S. has 13 wins and a draw from 22 matches against Japan, although the victory at Sacramento in July ended a run of five straight defeats in that series.

For the Eagles to break their record and win more than one pool match, much will depend on how Dublin-born and raised A.J. MacGinty - who made his debut in the 21-16 loss to Samoa in July - grows into the role of test flyhalf.

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