KOBE, Japan – David Ainu’u is, um, David. Dan Cole is Goliath.
That’s one battle that encapsulates the United States. vs. England game at the Rugby World Cup: 19-year-old American prop Ainu’u, with eight test caps and even less top-level club games, vs. the grizzled, vastly experienced Cole, who has played international rugby for nearly a decade and has 90 test appearances for England.
“David is a real, real shining light for us as a team, and for the USA,” U.S. head coach Gary Gold said on Wednesday on the eve of the U.S.’ first game at this World Cup. “He’s a fantastic kid, he’s a wonderful rugby player, an incredibly hard worker and I’m very excited to see him come up against a hugely experienced Dan Cole tomorrow.
“Unquestionably, David has improved.”
He’s hoping the same goes for the entire U.S. team against rugby giant England.
No one expects the U.S. to win in Kobe. The U.S. is 13 in the rankings, England No. 3. The U.S. has never progressed past the pool stage at a Rugby World Cup, England won the title in 2003. Gold guesses England’s team on Thursday at Kobe Misaki Stadium has twice as many test caps as the Americans – and it’s not even England’s strongest lineup. The U.S. conceded 50 points against Ireland in its last game against a Tier One team. England put 50 points on the Irish in warming up for the World Cup.
The stats go on.
“We do come into this game as quite severe underdogs against a very well-equipped England team,” Gold said. “What it does from our point of view is it allows us an opportunity to hopefully show that we have improved, that we can go toe to toe, even if it’s just for large periods of time in the game, with a team like England.”
Obviously, the history of Tier One vs. Tier Two teams at the World Cup is one-sided. But it’s not perfect.
Gold was in a unique position to appreciate Japan’s stunning upset of South Africa, a two-time World Cup winner, in a game turned into a move called the “Miracle of Brighton,” at the last World Cup in England four years ago.
Appreciate? Maybe not the right word considering Gold is South African.
But he was working in Japan that year, in this city, for the Kobe Steelers rugby team. Gold said that outrageous upset has “changed the mindset” of the heavily favored teams against the minnows at Rugby World Cups.
“The reality is we’ve all been there,” he said, “no matter what level you’ve played at, or coached, and you know when you are playing a team that is on paper supposed to be weaker than you.
“The England players, it’ll go through their mind. Maybe not very long, but it’ll go through their mind. What if? What if? What if?”
To complete the connection to Brighton, Eddie Jones, who coached the Japanese then, leads England in Japan in 2019. The English denied they spent any time thinking about Japan 34, South Africa 32, in September 2015.
England opened its World Cup on Sunday by beating Tonga 35-3 in a decent but not overly impressive performance.
“What happened (with) Japan-South Africa holds no relevance to us,” England scrum coach Neal Hatley said. “This is about us, the next step, game two of our World Cup pool. We haven’t looked at anything other than America and preparing for them.”
Where there was consensus was over Ainu’u.
Born in American Samoa and raised in Olympia, Washington state, the kid’s good. In a sign of his great potential, he’s now with top French club Toulouse. Gold said Ainu’u could “comfortably play 100 tests for America one day.”
And it’s probably short-changing him to call him the David in this showdown. At 125 kilograms, the teenager outweighs Cole by a couple of kilos.
“He’ll get the respect that he deserves as a starting international loosehead,” Hatley said. “It’s a great baptism of fire for him.”
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