Wednesday's 44-13 Churchill Cup loss to Tonga is far less important than NBC's winning broadcast rights to the next four Olympics, yet there is ample reason to worry about the test team.
NBC's triumph, combined with the network's renewed commitment to the USA 7s Collegiate Rugby Championship, announced at the start of the week, means American rugby can anticipate a growing profile for the best part of the decade. While most anyone can buy television time, high-caliber production and extensive promotion is an costly proposition, and so best achieved through strategic partnership.
The only comparable milestone is the 1995 British Sky Broadcasting agreement, which launched the newly self-sufficient Eagles to unprecedented heights while bolstering the parent union's finances and rugby's domestic footprint. There are obvious parallels in Jack Clark's results-oriented record as national team general manager and the business nous of the USA 7s organization.
USARFU's post-2005 management has articulated an expansive (if orthodox) vision but demonstrated no such leadership, and the test team has trended downward.
At the weekend, the Eagles yielded a Churchill-record 87 points in a humiliating England Saxons defeat. Yesterday, with the CRC's sparkle hardly worn off, the national XV posted its worst-ever loss to Tonga, which came in just fractionally below in the International Rugby Board rankings.
Wing Viliami Iongi's four tries grabbed the headlines. More concerning is the USA's second-half collapse, when the Ikale Tahi (translated: Sea Eagles) outscored their American namesakes 31-3, 4 tries to none.
After falling behind 13-3, Paul Emerick scored a short-handed touchdown in the 34th minute. The play was made by long gallop from Lou Stanfill, among the most combative of American forwards, and then an elegant cutout pass from Nese Malifa to Roland Suniula, who assisted Emerick's 12th try in 40 internationals.
'We didn’t start well, but played ourselves back into the match, coming close to lead at half time', head coach Eddie O'Sullivan said in a press release.
'We conceded some early scores in the second half, with lots of unforced errors', O'Sullivan observed of the demise. Also, Iongi's third try, which put the game out of reach at 59 minutes, came with Shawn Pittman in the sin bin.
O'Sullivan did not address the spectacle of Nese Malifa's kicking a short-range penalty goal in the 66th minute, when the US trailed 30-10.
As to evident organizational shortcomings, both O'Sullivan and captain Todd Clever pleaded the team has not had a sufficient amount of time together. 'We just switched off and we were not on the same page -- that’s partly because we are not together very often,' Clever said in USARFU's release.
That line of thinking suggests the historically fractious Tongans, who recently dropped a pair of 2007 World Cup standouts from the 2011 roster, have made superior use of the Churchill assembly. As two-thirds of the American starting lineup have been playing overseas, the amateurs versus professionals argument, beloved of USARFU's management, no longer pertains. Every team at the tournament is missing several first-choice players.
In replacing 13 starters after the Saxons game, O'Sullivan may have previewed his approach to the World Cup. In New Zealand as at present, the US faces two matches in five days. Indeed, in September America must run the gauntlet twice: first Ireland and then Russia, a game the Eagles almost certainly must win in order to avoid a second consecutive winless World Cup, and then Australia and Italy.
The Tonga defeat is the sixth in the past eight matches, a streak that began with last June's home Churchill win over Russia, which could be this year's finals opponent on the 18th. Canada yesterday downed the Bears 34-18 to earn a repeat visit to the championship round, likely against the Saxons.
Presumably that record will focus the attention of USARFU's board of directors, meeting today in New York. The agenda might also include a recent gathering of leading countries to discuss international rugby's growth prospects.
The London 'summit' was addressed by NBC executive Jon Miller, another sign the 'Tier 1' nations are figuring out what and who is driving growth in America.
Tonga 44 United States 13 (halftime: Tonga 13-10)
Tries: Viliami Iongi (4), Pasuka Mapakaitolo
Conversions: Kurt Morath (5)
Penalties: Kurth Morath (3)
Mateo Malupo; Viliami Helu, Suka Hufanga, Etueni Siua (S Taumoepeau), Viliami Iongi; Kurt Morath, Soane Havea (Daniel Morath); Tonga Lea’Aetoa, Ilaisa Ma’Asi (Atonio Halangahu), Kisi Pulu (captain, Ta'u Fainga’anuku), Sione Timani, Emosi Kauhenga (Paula Kaho), Pasuka Mapakaitolo, Pepa Koloamatangi, Vili Ma’Afu (Josh Afu)
United States of America
Try: Paul Emerick
Conversion: Valenese Malifa
Penalties: Valenese Malifa
Roland Suniula; Colin Hawley, Paul Emerick (Tai Enosa), Andrew Suniula, Kevin Swiryn; Valenese Malifa (Troy Hall), Tim Usasz (Mike Petri); Mate Moeakiola (Eric Fry), Chris Biller, Shawn Pittman, Louis Stanfill (Pat Danahy), Scott Lavalla, Inaki Basauri (John van der Giessen), Todd Clever (captain), Nick Johnson
Referee: Roman Poite (France)
Attendance: 1,000 (estimate)
Related: IRB blesses USA 7s TV changes