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Members of the United States team before taking part in a paddle down the sedate Whanganui River yesterday.
Members of the United States team before taking part in a paddle down the sedate Whanganui River yesterday.

Eagles aim to rock Rugby World Cup boat

With just two wins in the six previous tournaments, Mike Petri, the United States scrum-half, says the team are counting on rival sides underestimating them.

On their arrival in the city of Whanganui, the US rugby squad turned down a ceremonial ride in a Maori canoe because they thought that part of their welcoming festivities did not sound safe.

As soon as they learnt they had upset the local people, however, they apologised for missing the cultural significance and said they would be happy to go for a paddle on the sedate Whanganui River.

It could be the safest thing they do in New Zealand for the next month, while they try to buck expectations in the Rugby World Cup of being the punching bag of Pool C.

The Eagles are grouped with Ireland, Russia, Australia and Italy. Of those, they have only ever beaten Russia, and when those teams meet on September 15 it promises to be a virtual World Cup final for both sides.

Mike Petri, the scrum-half who has been playing rugby since high school, wishes he did not have to deal with heading to his second World Cup knowing he needs something extra special to win it. "I'd like to see the day the USA is a real challenger for the trophy," Petri said. "We're realistic. We have a tough pool in front of us and our priority is to go out and put on the best performance we can."

History does not suggest their best will be enough. The Eagles have only two wins at World Cups, both against Japan, in 1987 and 2003. Since the last tournament, in 2007, they have won only eight Tests, of which four were against World Cup teams. In their most recent Test last month, Japan beat them in a rainy Tokyo.

So are the Eagles any better than four years ago? Petri says comparisons are not valid.

"It's a different team, different coaching staff, different tournament, the dynamics to this squad are different," said Petri, who has had stints with the Sale Sharks and Newport in the UK. "A lot of teams go in and take some things for granted. Hopefully we'll be able to take advantage of that."

So the Eagles are counting on being underestimated. It worked last time. The US held their own in France, and even finished with the official Try of the Year, beginning with Todd Clever's intercept near their try line, and finishing with Taku Ngwenya twisting up South Africa's Bryan Habana then flashing past the world's best winger at the time to score the try. That earned Ngwenya a contract in France.

The Eagles have not produced another signature moment since. More funding than ever from the International Rugby Board has helped set up competitions such as the North American 4 and its successor, the Americas Championship, but the Eagles still lag behind the likes of Argentina and Canada.

Every June since 2003, they have also had the Churchill Cup. They won minor silverware this year for only the second time - at Russia's expense in a close contest - but that came after an 87-8 pasting from England's second-string side and a 44-13 defeat to Tonga.

Hardly anyone in the US was stirred by the 87-8 result, because that weekend, the US college sevens championship in Philadelphia attracted 17,000 fans and 14 hours of live television.

It is arguable whether the face of US rugby is the Eagles, or the national sevens team, coached by Al Caravelli, America's answer to Gordon Tietjens, the New Zealand sevens manager.

The US reached their first Sevens World Series final last year in Adelaide, Australia and regularly collect a trophy. The world tour stop in Las Vegas is increasingly popular. There is a sevens tournament somewhere in the US every weekend, and its new Olympic status is fuelling the surge to the point where sevens, unlike 15s and the Eagles, attracts sponsors and makes a profit.

But the Eagles have a chance to make a statement because, for the first time, 10 World Cup games will be screened live on American television, three on free-to-air NBC. However, NBC will show only one Eagles game, the opener against Ireland, the team Eddie O'Sullivan, the Eagles coach, expected to lead to a third successive World Cup this year until he quit in 2008.

O'Sullivan has stuck with a large core of players who have helped the US to as high as 16th in the rankings, three spots higher than when he took over in 2009.

"We're not a team to be overlooked," Petri said. "We want to show our families back home, and supporters back home, and players throughout the world that American rugby players are capable of playing at the top level and can be competitive."

And they are used to paddling upstream.

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