Let there be no mistake -- not many rugby fans are expecting Colorado's Eagles to fly very far while representing the U.S. in the upcoming Rugby World Cup, which will take place Sept. 7 to Oct. 20 in France. Following a 52-10 drumming to Canada in the Barclays Churchill Cup Bowl final in June, the Americans are now 15th in the world rankings, leaving little doubt that their quest for the Webb Ellis Cup -- as the trophy is officially known -- will be an uphill battle.
That battle began with a draw that slotted the Eagles in Pool A with defending World Cup champion England. The two teams are slated to lock horns in their finals opening match Sept. 8 in Lens, France. Regardless of the outcome, the Eagles will have four days to rest and prepare for their next match and the physical play of Tonga. A game with Samoa follows on Sept. 26, and four days later the Eagles wrap their first round games with South Africa -- tournament favorites second only to the perennial powerhouse All Blacks from New Zealand. It's no wonder oddsmakers posted the Eagles' chances of winning the RWC at 5,000-1.
Still, if the Eagles can rally and learn from their miscues against the Canadians, they might be able to do some damage in the early going and work their way into the quarterfinals, at which point anything can happen.
But let's not go there just yet. Instead, the focus for the team is on that opening-round game against England. Hovering somewhere between past triumphs and youthful rebuilding, the Red Rose is not the same team that rose to glory to win the last Rugby World Cup four years ago in Australia. Still, England is determined to prove that it has solid core of players and a deep bench bolstered by RWC experience as it seeks to repeat as champions.
"You can't discount the English," says Nigel Melville, the former England captain and one-time coach of the Wasps and Gloucester.
Now the CEO and president of Rugby Operations for the U.S. team, Melville recognizes England as a physical team with stronger and bigger professional players, unlike the Eagles, who play as amateurs.
"We just don't see that caliber of play here in the States, which makes preparing for the world stage difficult."
Assessing his own team, Melville admits that the Eagles are underpowered and lack depth when compared with the World Cup competition. A mix of amateurs and returning professionals, the Eagles are a part-time team, drawing players of varying skills and background. Virginia native Mike Hercus played rugby professionally for the Newport Gwent Dragons and Leeds in Australia before joining the Eagles in 2002. Since then, the 28-year-old, fly-half and team captain has racked up 361 points in international play, the most in Eagles history.
"We're in the pool of death," says Hercus, referring to the difficult Pool A. "It's difficult to pull an upset in rugby, so we just have to focus on us and play every game to win. If we can get a victory against Tonga and upset Samoa, then I think that positions us well for the future." While not trying to sound defeatist, Hercus is realistic about his squad's chances, adding that to beat Samoa, they'd need their "best day at the office."
Hercus and veteran locks Luke Gross and Alec Parker, along with center Phillip Eloff, provide valuable on-field leadership for the Eagles. All were members of the 2003 Eagles RWC team. Gross, an Indiana native currently playing for the Doncaster Knights in England, and Parker, who hails from and plays in Aspen, Colo., were sidelined rehabbing knee injuries that kept them out of the Churchill Cup lineup. The South African-born Eloff was also left off the roster while nursing a broken leg. All are back training and will be ready for the RWC.
The rest of the Eagles plan to be ready as well. They ratcheted up the level of competition against Ireland's Munster, winners if the 2006 Heineken Cup in Chicago in the Setanta Challenge Cup World Rugby send-off match, Aug. 26. Despite a first half 6-0 lead, the Eagles eventually lost 10-6 as Munster dominated the second half. Still, the Eagles' defense held firm throughout the second half, boding well as the RWC looms.
Coach Peter Thorburn viewed the Munster match as a chance for the Eagles to play under pressure. "In playing for the World Cup, it's the team with the most experience and the ability to handle pressure that wins," he said.
Thorburn knows all about experience, pressure and quality opponents. Before taking on the coaching duties for the Eagles last year, he had most recently been a coach and selector for New Zealand's All Blacks. As for the tough Eagles Pool A draw, the coach says he's "not overly perturbed," adding, "there's no sense worrying about it."
Thorburn says, however, that the short turnaround between the matches with England and Tonga, and then again between Samoa and South Africa, will be difficult for his squad.
"All the pressure is on the favorites they're expected to win," Melville says, adding that playing spoiler can be a good role for the Eagles. "No one is looking at the Americans to win, so for us the only pressure is to play the game we're capable of and try to minimize mistakes. If we can make it to the second round, then it's anyone's game."
Minimizing mistakes, the ability to regroup defensively after turnovers and strengthening the Eagles' forward play are the areas that Thorburn is focusing on going into the RWC. As for his choice to hoist the Web Ellis Cup, past loyalties aside, Thorburn is picking the All Blacks.
"Take a look at them," he says. "There's not a team out there that can put two constructive quality tries together against them."
Peter Lion is an ESPN.com rugby contributor and director for "Outside The Lines."