By George Vecsey

Maybe it’s good for the national soul to be a back-bencher.

Jebb Sinclair of Canada, left, and Todd Clever of the U.S. on Saturday in Toronto.

In their own personal Standard & Poor’s rating, the United States men’s rugby players have won exactly 2 matches and lost 15 in six previous Rugby World Cups.

The Eagles, as they are known, are not going to win the coming World Cup in New Zealand, either.

Fresh from not winning the soccer World Cups for men in 2010 and women in 2011, and, for that matter, the first two World Baseball Classics, in 2006 and 2009, the United States has a rugged schedule in the next Rugby World Cup, which opens Sept. 9.

Nevertheless, with the zest notable to rugby players on and off the field, the Americans are delighted to be heading to the home of the All Blacks, with their Maori in-your-face war dance, the Haka. The All Blacks are the favorites again.

The Eagles did not win a match in the most recent World Cup, in France in 2007, but they did produce the single most memorable play — a four-man burst of lateral passes (football, eat your heart out) that ended with a stunning dash by Takudzwa Ngwenya, their Zimbabwean-born sprinter, which is still very much a video staple.

For the moment, the United States is all right with just qualifying. The one time it did not, in 1995, the tournament was won by the host, South Africa, in a nation-changing event depicted in the Clint Eastwood movie “Invictus.” That film showed many Americans not only the joys and challenges of moving an oval ball against bone-crunching opponents but also how much the sport means in a wide swath of the world.

“You’re going in there as an underdog, but it’s still exciting,” said Todd Clever, the captain of the Eagles, who played in the World Cup in 2003 in Australia.

“You’re listening to your national anthem and playing opponents who are true professionals,” Clever said. “It’s hard to compete with those countries.”

Just like the World Cups of soccer, the rugby tournament is a quadrennial jamboree of the top nations, up to 20 now. The tournament in France sold an estimated 2.2 million tickets with a worldwide television audience of 4.2 billion, making it in some ways the third-largest sports event in the world, behind the men’s soccer World Cup and the summer Olympics.

This year, for the first time, Universal Sports and its partner NBC Sports will show all four American matches, including the opening match against Ireland on Sept. 11, on a tape delay bucking the N.F.L. on a Sunday.

The six-week exposure will help Americans discover a sport that combines the manual dexterity of basketball with the jarring physicality of football and the full-field creativity of soccer.

“The biggest thing in rugby is that everybody plays offense and defense,” Clever said. “It’s a team sport with no timeouts, and when things get tough, you have to work it out on the field. It’s not about the coaches. It’s about the players.”

Clever began the play voted the best try (or score) of the 2007 tournament. Against the eventual champion, South Africa, he intercepted the ball near the goal line, and after a 30-meter run, rather than be taken down, executed the alert rugby tactic of shoveling a sideways pass to Alec Parker, who unloaded the ball to Mike Hercus, who heaved it to the right flank to Ngwenya, who performed a few stutter steps and then outran Bryan Habana, one of the fastest players in the world.

Even in the 64-15 defeat, the sequence was properly recognized by broadcasters on the spot and has been memorialized ever since. Also, Ngwenya’s romp earned him a contract from a pro team in Biarritz, France.

It takes more than one play to grow a sport. Rugby is on a bit of a roll in the United States, partly because the seven-player version of the sport has been accepted into the 2016 Olympics and the American men and women are among the leaders in that form. Nigel Melville, the former English captain who has been president of USA Rugby for four years, is overseeing a version called rookie rugby, for children to get a taste of moving the ball before they are introduced to contact. Melville says 500,000 children are playing rookie rugby, with 100,000 active players around the United States, mostly in the northeast and on the West Coast, and also as a club sport at a growing number of colleges.

Mike Petri, from Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, was invited by a coach at Xavier High to play something called rugby. When he mentioned this odd conversation at home, he learned his father, Michael, had actually played rugby at St. Francis Prep, and had even made a tour of Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

“I had no idea,” recalled the son, who has since played for pro teams near Manchester, England, and Newport, Wales, and now represents the New York Athletic Club. Petri is often asked why rugby players, with minimum padding and no helmets, do not sustain grievous head and body injuries, the way American football players do.

“I never played football,” Petri said, “but I see players with helmets leading with their heads. A lot of guys just stick their heads in there. We are taught to tackle with our shoulders. You wrap up the opponent’s legs, you don’t just throw yourself at him and hope he goes down.”

Is that an ethical or technical consideration? Both, Petri said. Not that crude, one could even say vile, events do not happen inside the scrum, where the official cannot possibly see, but the open-field human cannonball aspect of football does not carry over into rugby.

The sport seems to be expanding in the United States the way soccer did two decades ago, with the best players starting to earn salaries and experience overseas. The United States soccer team reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 2002, and that remains a realistic aspiration every four years. Every soccer tournament has a so-called Group of Death, and the Eagles seem perpetually drawn into their own rugby version — Ireland, Russia, Australia and Italy this time, with Russia the best chance for a victory.

The Eagles lost to Canada, 28-22, last Saturday in Toronto and will play a rematch in rugby-specific Infinity Park in Glendale, Colo., on Aug. 13. They play in Japan a week later en route to New Zealand, the nation that has incorporated its Maori heritage into daily life. The national museum in Wellington is called Te Papa Tongarewa (container of treasures), and pedestrians greet each other in Maori: “Kia ora.”

On the field, it is a little less hospitable, as the All Blacks stomp and chant and perform throat-slitting gestures at their opponents. With the aura comes the pressure; New Zealand has somehow won only the first World Cup, as co-host with Australia in 1987.

This could be the only full World Cup in New Zealand for a long time. England is host in 2015, Japan in 2019, and 2023 is “up for grabs,” as Melville put it. With children playing rookie rugby, and huge stadiums and audiences a given, the sport could keep growing in the United States. A victory every now and then would not hurt.