- Associated Press - Sunday, September 27, 2015

LEEDS, England (AP) - For the U.S. Eagles, the wait goes on for a high-profile victory that could jumpstart rugby in a country long considered to be a sleeping giant of the sport.

It almost came against Scotland at the Rugby World Cup on Sunday.

For 40 minutes, the Americans outmuscled, out-thought and outpointed one of Europe’s traditional powers. Losing 13-6 at halftime, the Scots looked rattled as they trudged back to the locker room to the backdrop of “U-S-A, U-S-A” chants around Elland Road.

“It was a nervous place to be,” Scotland winger Tim Visser said.

U.S. wins over Japan (twice) and Russia in previous World Cups would have paled in comparison to beating Scotland, a perennial quarterfinalist on rugby’s highest stage. But the Eagles couldn’t hang on.

Scotland scored two tries within seven minutes of the restart, and three more after that. On paper, the final score of 39-16 looked like another blowout for the Americans.

Oh, for what might have been.

“They came out with a lot of energy in the second half, when the game was in the balance,” U.S. coach Mike Tolkin said. “It could have gone the other way.”

For an American to be saying that about a game against a top-tier team speaks volumes about the progress being made in U.S. rugby.

A report published by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association last December said participation in rugby grew 81 percent from 2008 to 2013 in the United States. The sport is thriving at college level, and the title win by the Eagles at the London Sevens showed the strides made in the shorter version of the game.

The 15-man U.S. team is still waiting for its breakthrough, though. The likes of fullback Chris Wyles, winger Takudzwa Ngwenya and No. 8 Samu Manoa - possibly the best rugby player to ever come out of the States - give the Eagles star quality. But there is no depth, and the home-based squad members struggle to maintain the intensity for 80 minutes.

One of those players is Joe Taufetee, a prop born in American Samoa, who turned to rugby four years ago after injury ended his shot at a career in the NFL.

“Sometimes I have to pinch myself at where I am,” Taufetee told the Associated Press. “I’m coming out and seeing these big crowds. I’m doing the walkaround and passing these big names and it’s just insane for me.

“I’m trying to bring myself back to the ground and be in the moment.”

Small steps are being made.

Visser was a member of the Scotland team that beat the Eagles 24-6 in Houston last year. He noticed a vast improvement in Leeds.

“They couldn’t put two phases together when we were over there,” Visser recalled. “Today, they were putting pressure on us time after time, putting large phases of play together, which meant we had to keep defending. That’s something we hadn’t seen from them in the past.”

The Americans, who lost 25-16 to Samoa in their first game at the World Cup, have matches remaining against South Africa and Japan in Pool B. That’s two more chances for Taufetee and other U.S.-based players to put themselves on show.

“Being out here, exposed to all these stars and being on the big stage,” Taufetee said, “it’ll open up the eyes of a lot of clubs to what the Americans can bring to the table.”

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