Mike Tolkin (Gallo)
London - The bus was as quiet as a tomb. On board were the United States Eagles, returning to their hotel in Leeds after their second and most maddening loss at the Rugby World Cup.
Scotland, a team they'd never beaten, had been in their crosshairs. The U.S. took a well-deserved 13-6 lead into the changing room at halftime... and left it there. Within seven minutes, the Scots scored two tries, regained the lead and the momentum before eventually winning 39-16.
At previous World Cups, the Americans would have pat each other's backs for giving a top-tier team a real scare.
But times are changing.
Alcohol isn't allowed on the team bus after games anymore, so instead of imbibing there was introspection. No longer is playing well in a losing cause considered good enough.
Their quarterfinals goal is out of reach again, the Eagles have never advanced out of the pool stage, but they still have other boxes to tick with games remaining against South Africa on Wednesday and Japan on Sunday.
"We have two games left to prove how far we've come," said lock Louis Stanfill, an Eagle at his third Rugby World Cup. "
The last two games (against Samoa and Scotland), we let ourselves down. But the direction we're going in, future World Cups hold a large amount of promise for us, and Americans tend to fulfil that promise."
That's a fair boast.
Stanfill has bounced around overseas clubs, and noticed progression each time he's gone home. It's been a long, hard road, he noted, to raise the expectations of the home-based amateurs, improve their training, and then demand the coaching staff blend them with the overseas professionals, find the right game plan, and cultivate chemistry and an ethos in the national team.
"From 2014 to now, we've developed a winning culture, where we understand if we want to be excellent we have to train excellent," he said. "We have to do things that normal rugby players wouldn't do, and that has now become a constant."
It's true the Eagles have greater depth than previously, so that when France-based Scott LaValla broke his arm and former captain Todd Clever was dropped before the World Cup, that wasn't as crippling to the team as it would have been in the past.
Much was made of the 31-man squad containing 20 players at their first World Cup, including the uncapped Joe Taufete'e, one of six props chosen. And while there were less overseas pros than at the 2011 Cup, many had played overseas, and the team was far more experienced than four years ago. There were 10 holdovers from 2011, and there ought to be a lot more for the 2019 event in Japan.
Coach Mike Tolkin had only praise for his team's work ethic and morale after three months together. He just wants them to string more good moments together in matches. He loved the team's attitude, too: No fear.
"We've gone after it, kept involved for 80 minutes even when patches of games haven't gone our way," Tolkin said. "Guys haven't thrown in the towel. That's a really important foundation for any successful team."