US leaving decade of disappointment behind
Twelve years since they last faced each other in a final at the World Rugby Classic, France and the United States will meet again tonight.
France enter the game as defending champions, but for the US it is the first time they have reached the end of the week since that defeat in 2003.
And while it is the second-tier Plate final they are contesting, the mere fact they have made it represents something of an achievement.
The past decade has been a struggle for the Classic Eagles on the field, but a strong performance against South Africa in their first game and a comprehensive 48-19 demolishing of Italy in the Plate semi-final on Thursday night hints at a brighter future.
“We have had a few down years, and I think just the overall culture of the team kind of went down a little,” Tim Kluempers, the US team manager, said. “I don't think we did a good job in the selection committee by getting a diverse group of people [from] throughout the US to come out and represent.
“We want the boys to have a good time, but the last couple of years I think we were more interested in the drinking than the rugby part of it.”
Kluempers credits the influence of Paul Holmes, the Eagles coach and director of youth rugby for the USA, and Nese Malifa, the fly half, in turning the side around and instilling a more structured approach to the week that has paid almost instant dividends.
Kluempers is well placed to comment on the changes in the culture of the US team, having played in that final in 2003.
“In 2003, I think we were very talented, but we were a great team. The similarities I see in this group is these guys are very talented, very fit and the culture of this team is amazing.”
The manner of the US win over Italy suggests that tonight's game will be a close one, and Kleumpers is confident his side will give a good account of themselves against a French team whose exit from the Classic competition, at the hands of Argentina, was largely of their own making.
“The boys have huge respect for France, we know they love to throw the ball around, and if anybody has watched our past couple of games they will know that we like to play dynamic running rugby and it should be a very exciting match,” he said.
“If we can try to stick to our game plan and stick to our structure we will do all right.”
Meanwhile, in tonight's Classic final the Lions are relishing the opportunity to get stuck into the All Blacks and avenge their 17-3 defeat last year.
This year's game promises to be a much closer affair, with the defending champions less than convincing in their wins against Italy and South Africa.
The Lions meanwhile thrashed Canada 43-7 before edging Argentina 20-17 in a hard-fought semi-final.
“It was always going to be a tough one against Argentina, they're a proud nation and wanted to get to the finals,” Daffyd James, the Lions captain, said.
“But the hard work begins tomorrow [Saturday] really, we don't want to come off second best and we firmly believe we can win.
“We're going out there to enjoy ourselves, but come away with the silverware as well.”
Still, James, the former Wales and Lions centre, believes his side are the underdogs going into tonight's game against New Zealand, who have won the Classic ten times.
“Playing against the All Blacks, they seem to win all the time, every tournament they play in they come out on top,” James said. “It's a big game, we're the underdogs, and we're looking forward to it, relishing the opportunity, it should be a great occasion.”
A couple of bumps and bruises aside, the Lions are largely healthy heading into tonight, although the social side of the week has taken its toll on some of the non-playing members of the squad.
And while James said the team had enjoyed the week as they always did, that should not imply anything other than a steely determination to make up for last year.
“Make no qualms about it, we're certainly approaching this game [seriously]. We're looking forward to getting stuck in there and the boys can't wait to play in the final,” he said.
“We're relishing the opportunity to play the All Blacks again, we didn't come up trumps last year, but we've got a very good team and hopefully we can come away with the spoils.”