Surprising U.S. prepares for rugby quarterfinal

Nov 13, 2013, 2:05 PM EST
Joseph Paulo, of the US, second right, tries to break through the Cook Islands defence, during the Rugby League 2013 World Cup match between the Cook Islands and the US, at the Memorial Stadium, in Bristol, England, Wednesday Oct. 30, 2013.
AP Photo/PA, David Davies

WREXHAM, Wales (AP) — They've come from all walks of life to play for the United States in their first Rugby League World Cup.

The team includes a roofer, carpenter and surveyor — even a $10-an-hour dog walker.

Staying true to their pre-tournament motto of "Shock The World," the upstart Americans — nicknamed the Tomahawks — followed a warm-up win over France by beating Wales and the Cook Islands.

Next up is tournament-favorite Australia in the quarterfinals on Saturday.

"For some of us, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said center Taylor Welch, one of the U.S. amateur players. "And for us to get a chance to play against people like Greg Inglis, Billy Slater, and all these great Australia players, it's just humbling."

The U.S. team is the only group of unpaid players in the 14-team tournament. That's why the dog walking came in handy.

"When I was in Chicago doing a bit of training, I had to do other work to get some extra cash," Welch told The Associated Press on Wednesday after training in Wales. "One of my friends over there, he owns a dog-walking company, so I've been helping him out. You have to do what you can."

Australia has racked up more than 100 points in three straight wins during the group stage and most experts are predicting a rout over the Americans at Wrexham's Racecourse Ground.

If the U.S. does win, it would rank among the greatest upsets in sports. And U.S. coach Terry Matterson isn't giving up hope.

"There's always a chance," he said. "But we aren't talking about that. We're talking about the things that we have done the first four games over here and see where that takes us. It's important that we aren't overawed, but I don't know how we are going to be. This is a new situation for these guys."

For Matterson, like many of his players, the World Cup experience has gone on longer than expected. Flights home, originally planned for last weekend, have had to be rescheduled. Day jobs have been put on hold.

Matterson was supposed to be back at work in Australia with the North Queensland Cowboys in the NRL, or National Rugby League, on Tuesday. Instead, he was coaching a training session under bright skies in north Wales, plotting how to bring down a team containing four players he coaches.

"I've been in the game a long time, as a player and a coach, but this is totally unexpected, where we have come from," said Matterson, shaking his head. "The way they have bonded together and enjoyed themselves, we deserve this opportunity to be on center stage.

"These guys have earned that right. You wouldn't believe some of the adversity these guys have gone through."

Matterson recounts a 50-hour journey his squad made from Philadelphia or Australia all the way to Toulouse — via London and Barcelona — for the warm-up match against France.

"Because of what we have done and been through these hard times, they just built their strength and bonded," Matterson said. "They are a great bunch of guys."

They've picked up many followers on the way to the quarterfinals.

Even Australian children's singing group The Wiggles have thrown their weight behind the Tomahawks, recording a song to celebrate their achievements that has become a hit on YouTube. The founder of the group is Tony Field, a rugby league fan who is friends with David Niu — one of the driving forces behind rugby league in the U.S.

This weekend, the Tomahawks will be relying heavily on the four NRL players in their squad, but the size of the challenge is immense.

The Australia team features players who have a combined total of about 3,300 NRL appearances. The Tomahawks have approximately 400 NRL appearances.

Welch could be up against Inglis, one of the world's best and most destructive players.

"You play against him on a video game, not in real life," Welch said. "It's crazy. It hasn't really sunk in yet that I could get to play against him. We are playing against our idols, but as soon as we get on the field, it's not going to matter who they are."

It's that kind of attitude that has taken the Tomahawks farther then they expected.

Maybe there's room for one more surprise.