St George's Park History
Port Elizabeth, South Africa

Rugby St George's Park - Eastern American Eagles Visit St George's Park
Eastern American Eagles Visit St George's Park

The Eastern American Eagles, a rugby team touring South Africa from the United States, possibly started some people wondering what rugby players have come to when they jetted into Port Elizabeth on Sunday, March 14, 1976.

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Bob F Warner (centre), a lock with touring Eastern American Eagles rugby team, demonstrates the method of dealing with the opposition in a lineout. His teammates are Bob de Paul, left, and Paul Thomas.
All 25 of the players were large and well built, but there the resemblance to the traditional South African concept of a rugby player ended.

The were no team jackets - or anything resembling one - or crew cut to be seen, but instead a multi-coloured array of tee shirts, jeans and sandals.

The Eagles were clearly in South Africa to enjoy themselves, and learn as much as possible of a sport which was relatively new to the United States.

They had come to play Crusaders Rugby Club and were scheduled to play another three before returning home on March 25.

They had lost all four of the previous games and their manager, Ken Wood, admitted they were “a trifle disappointed”.

“The opposition has been better than we expected, and we have not been able to show the best aspects of our game.

“We like to play open, running, 15-man rugby.”

He said there were 500 rugby clubs in the United States, compared with 50 clubs 20 years previously. A national team met the Wallabies in 1975, but were beaten.

Most of the Eagles were university students. One of them, Bob Causey, an engineering student at Louisiana State University, said American football, or gridiron, made a good spectator sport, but rugby was more fun to play.

“Rugby is faster, and there is a lot more action for the player.”

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Ian Kirkpatrick (left), the Eastern Province rugby coach, seemed to work wonders with the front row of the Eastern American Eagles team at a special practice at UPE.
The front row, made up of Peter Brock (in the scrum cap), Robbie de Paul, Mike Sherlock and Gary Brackett (back) listen intently as Kirkpatrick explains a point.
Gavin Cowley, Springbok reserve against the 1974 British Lions but more recently Eastern Province’s match-winning hero in the final of the Gillette Cup cricket competition, was included in the Crusader side.

Saders were making an all-out effort to recapture some of their former glories after a spell in the wilderness. The chose an interesting-looking side and their ranks were increased by several new signings.

At fullback was Okkie Vermeulen, a former member of the crack Graeme College side of a few seasons previously and who represented Eastern Free State last season while doing his military training.

Ian Viljoen, ex-Rhodesian, was on the one wing and Dan (Cheeky) Watson, captain of the same Graeme side, on the other.

Gary Smit, who played for Parks in 1975, and Keith Reid, who was also a provincial cricketer, at centre.

Newcomers to the pack included Harry Conradie, a Free State ‘B’ prop, and Trevor Cooper, who represented Transvaal at eighthman.

The full team, which was captained by Francois de Villiers, was: Okkie Vermeulen, Ian Viljoen, Gary Smith, Keith Reid, Dan Watson, Gavin Cowley, Francois de Villiers, Harry Conradie, Andre de Villiers, Rassie Erasmus, Pierre Dreyer, Pat Clarke, Mike Gillespie, Valance Watson and Trevor Cooper.

The Eagles came to South Africa to learn how to play. Although their tour record showed a huge deficit balance, they were far from being despondent.

“We are learning all the time, and hopefully, improving,” said their manager, Ken Wood.

“One cannot, however, dismiss those two crushing defeats at the hands of Pretoria and Free State Universities, but after all they are two of the strongest club combinations in the country.”

The Americans were possibly a better side than their record suggested. Obviously, as they were comparatively newcomers to the game, they lacked some of the basic skills inherent in their South African opponents.

But they were enthusiastic and their willingness to learn and take advice was clearly shown when Ian Kirkpatrick, the Springbok and Eastern Province coach, had them out training the previous day.

But alas, the Eastern American Eagles were still without a win when the new-look Crusader side scored seven tries in their final tally of 38 points to a lone goal (six points) by the visitors at St George’s Park.

Hardly before they realised that the game had started, the Eagles were 10 points down and at halftime they were down 22-0.

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Keith Reid, the Crusader centre, dives over for one of the seven tries his side scored against the touring Eastern American Eagles rugby team at the Crusaders Ground (St George's Park).
However, they came back well and for a long period in the second half they more than held their own.

But then the host side put in another scoring spurt toward the end to give the final scoreline a convincing look.

The large crowd were treated to some entertaining rugby and the margin of 32 points did not do justice to the Eagles.

However, they had several basic weaknesses and until these were overcome they would continue to suffer the same fate.

When on the move they often looked good and the try they scored was an excellent example of their handling and backup. It started well inside their own half with a drive by the forwards.

The ball then came back along the line. Briefly, the momentum of the attack faltered with a stray pass, but it was neatly revived and White, on the right wing, put up a well judged cross-kick onto the Sader’s posts.

They were perhaps a little lucky to be favoured by the bounce, but eighthman Warner was on hand to take the rebound off the upright to score a well-deserved try.

The move drew the biggest applause of the evening, for it was a combined team effort and one which they repeated several times during the game without the ultimate result.

The plate presented by the Eastern American Eagles to the Crusaders Rugby Football Club.
There was much to admire about several of their backs, and in better company men like flyhalf Bordley, the two centres Conroy and Tillotson and pacey wings White and Green would make their mark.

However, under pressure they made too many mistakes. There was little or no defence round the fringes of the scrum and the distribution from the set pieces was slow and erratic.

Francois de Villiers was quick to exploit the slowness of the Eastern’s flanks and the two knifing breaks set up the first two tries, one by Valence Watson, the other by his brother, Cheeky.

Some hesitant midfield defence allowed Gary Smit to crash over for try number three and just before halftime Cheeky Watson, gathering his own kick ahead got his second try. Cowley landed two conversions and Viljoen one.

Then the Americans scored their try, converted by fullback Muir, and encouraged by this success, they more than held their own in the general exchanges for a long spell.

Then Cowley, taking a short penalty, moved to his right. On his inside was Keith Reid who took the pass to score.

Saders final two tries went to the credit of the forwards. Hooker Andre de Villiers rounded off a concerted drive down the left and then Pierre Dreyer, breaking from the side of the scrum, took his scrumhalf’s short pass to score.

Both were converted by former Rhodesian wing Ian Viljoen who showed enough in his limited opportunities to indicate that he is a valuable gain for this province.

Making allowances for the fact that this was Sader’s first outing of the season, the home side played pleasing rugby.

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