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2003 RUGBY WORLD CUP

U.S. Still Trying to Make Scrum Kind of Impression

October 12, 2003|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

It takes 30 players, a playing surface about as long as a football field, goal posts 18 feet apart, a crossbar 10 feet high and an inflated, oval ball, but it's not football, it's rugby.

And for anyone who doesn't know the difference between a scrum and a ruck, the U.S. national rugby team is trying to change all that, beginning Wednesday when the Eagles play a first-round match against Fiji in the Rugby World Cup in Brisbane, Australia.

Kevin Dalzell sells real estate in San Diego, but not this month.

"My dad is covering for me," said Dalzell, who is happy that Jim Dalzell, unlike many of Kevin's friends and neighbors, at least understands why he is in Australia instead of selling condos.

"Half the time, some don't even understand where you're going or why," Dalzell said.

That's the rugby life, even for the best players in the U.S., who flew to Brisbane in September to get ready for the World Cup, where their mission is to try to reach the quarterfinals, but also score points for rugby and maybe even bring it into the sports mainstream.

The U.S. national team is battling not only a difficult group of Fiji, Scotland, Japan and France, but also the unwelcome weight of its own rugby history. The Eagles have never reached the quarterfinals of the Word Cup in four previous appearances.

So when the U.S. plays its opener against Fiji, the players know they have a difficult chore ahead of them, especially the perception game.

"That's our goal," Dalzell said. "That's something we really want to accomplish in the World Cup. This is a great time for this team to play to its potential."

The Eagles, who qualified for the World Cup with a 6-3 record, are unlike most of the teams they will face in Australia because the majority of the U.S. players do not play for professional teams. Instead, they play rugby on the side, usually with club teams, such as Dalzell's Old Mission Beach Athletic Club.

Only five U.S. players play professionally in Europe. Three others are college students.

One of the pros is Dave Hodges, the U.S. captain who plays professionally in Wales. A former rugby All-American at Occidental College, Hodges also played outside linebacker on the football team and was a Division III All-American.

Hodges played on the 1999 U.S. team that lost all three of its games at the World Cup and at 35, he figures this will be his last World Cup appearance.

"I'm thinking about it, but I'm not sure," he said. "Our first goal is to beat Fiji, so we're going to take first things first."

Rugby in the U.S. is starving for recognition as well as funding. Financial support comes from private donations and sponsorships, with Michelob one of the corporate interests. It still remains a low-budget operation and players appreciate every small perk when the World Cup comes around, such as having their laundry done for free.

Australia is the defending champion in the World Cup, but England is considered the favorite. The U.S. was invited to the first World Cup in 1987 and defeated Japan, but lost its next two games. In 1991, the U.S. was 0-3 in the World Cup and in 1995, the U.S. did not qualify. In the last World Cup four years ago, the U.S. lost all three of its games.

Six players return from the Eagles' 1999 World Cup team -- Hodges, Dalzell, Dan Lyle, Kirk Khasigian, Alec Parker and Luke Gross. Four groups of five teams compete in Australia and the top two in each pool advance to the quarterfinals.

After taking on Fiji, the U.S. plays Scotland in Brisbane on Oct. 20, Japan in Gosford on Oct. 27 and France in Wollongong on Oct. 31.

Dalzell, who played professionally for three seasons in France and another season in England, says the U.S. has a chance to advance to the quarterfinals for the first time and credits Coach Tom Billups, a member of the 1999 team who became coach last year.

"This is the most confident I've ever gone into a series of games," Dalzell said. "It's been a process of two years of preparation. With Tom, he's seen how teams need to be prepared."

It remains to be seen if the Eagles can make some kind of dent in the consciousness of the U.S. sporting public.

"We're looking to do that every time we go out and play," Hodges said. "The World Cup is a bigger stage for us now. America likes winners. Just look at the women's soccer team when they won. I'm not sure everyone was a soccer fan, but people sure got behind them, therefore, they have a pretty big fan base.

"We definitely have an opportunity to do something special this year. It's easy to get ignored. We're doing all we can not to let that happen."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The Facts

Oct. 10-Nov. 22, Australia

POOL PLAY

Through Nov. 2.

Pool A -- Argentina, Australia, Ireland, Namibia, Romania.

Pool B -- United States, Fiji, France, Japan, Scotland.

Pool C -- England, Georgia, Samoa, South Africa, Uruguay.

Pool D -- Canada, Italy, New Zealand, Tonga, Wales.

U.S. SCHEDULE

* Wednesday vs. Fiji; Oct. 20 vs. Scotland; Oct. 27 vs. Japan; Oct. 31 vs. France.

QUARTERFINALS

* 1. Pool D winner vs. C runner-up, Nov. 8, Melbourne; 2. Pool A winner vs. B runner-up, Nov. 8, Brisbane; 3. Pool B winner vs. A runner-up, Nov. 9, Melbourne; 4. Pool C winner vs. D runner-up, Nov. 9, Brisbane.

SEMIFINALS

* Q1 winner vs. Q2 winner, Nov. 15 at Sydney; Q3 winner vs. Q4 winner, Nov. 16, Sydney.

THIRD PLACE

Semifinal losers, Nov. 20, Sydney.

FINAL

* Semifinal winners, Nov. 22, Sydney.

TV

* All U.S. and England games, as well as the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals, will be shown live on inDEMAND and DirecTV pay per view. All games will be shown -- delayed three days -- on Fox Sports World.

ON THE WEB

www.rugbyworldcup.com

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