Despite coming into the test match as 30 point underdogs, the USA Eagles put together a strong effort in the face of the long odds.
On the receiving end of 80 minutes of bruising play, Ireland found themselves lucky to escape with a 27-10 victory in front of a crowd of over 10,000 at Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara, California.
While Irish fans will quickly note that the Ireland team was devoid of their best players, who are on tour with the British & Irish Lions, the same could also be said of the USA squad, which was missing a handful of key players including Todd Clever and Paul Emerick.
With the lion’s share of the second half possession, the Eagles found themselves unlucky to be down 20-0 midway through the second half. With a recent history of crumbling in the last 20 minutes of games, the USA kept strong and cut the lead to 20-10 before Ireland snuck in one last try by captain Rory Best in the closing minutes.
“They gave it their all for 80 minutes, so overall I’m pretty happy,” USA Eagles Coach Eddie O’Sullivan said. “They pushed us around in the rolling mauls, but our scrums were as good as could be. We made some mistakes, but what’s nice is that the mistakes we did make are fixable.”
Were it not for an atrocious kicking day by Eagle flyhalf Mike Hercus, it could have been a very different game. Hercus missed four penalty attempts, each one progressively easier, before being pulled in the 57th minute in favor of Ata Malifa.
A late hit penalty by Hercus on Ireland scrumhalf Peter Stringer in the 52nd minute directly led to an Ireland try. The rough outing for the long-time Eagle stalwart certainly changed the outcome of the game.
Ireland got on the board first when Mick O’Driscoll scored off of a driving maul from a lineout deep in the Eagle half in the 14th minute. With the updated laws in effect, the maul can no longer be pulled down and the Irish side used te rule well throughout the match.
In fact, it was their only real offensive weapon against the aggressive Eagles' defense.
The Eagles fared very well at the scrum, creating a good platform throughout the game. The other set piece, the lineout, was a mess for the entire first half.
New cap, Chris Biller, had a rough day throwing in the lineouts. After losing six straight, Biller was replaced early in the second half by Joe Welch, which shored up things as the Eagles went on to win four of their last five lineouts.
The lineout is a definite area of improvement for the Eagles as they repeatedly ruined good opportunities in the first half with botched lineouts.
Ireland extended their lead to 8-0 in the 23rd minute with a penalty kick from Ian Keatley.
Having played defense for most of the first half, USA began putting some pressure on Ireland , resulting in three penalty attempts in the next ten minutes of play.
All nine points were left adrift as Hercus missed on all three attempts.The first attempt was difficult, by any standard, but the other two should have been made. Instead Ireland was left with a 8-0 lead, which they extended to 13-0 just before halftime with a try from inside center Ian Whitten.
With the game slowly escaping them, the USA defense held strong and the big hits kept on coming.
The back row of Louis Stanfill, Peter Dahl, and Nic Johnson had an especially good day in defense and produced some very big hits. Johnson also put in plenty of hard yards with the ball as the USA used a very structured froward attack on offense that kept the ball away from Ireland throughout much of the second half. Mike MacDonald and nep cap Will Johnson were also a nice pairing in the front row and the locks were all active in the game, giving much hope for the future of the USA forward pack.
The Eagles had yet another chance to get on the scoreboard in the 48th minute with a penalty right in front of the goal posts. Sadly, another attempt just missed for Hercus and the score remained 13-0 in favor of Ireland.
Shortly after, Ireland extended their lead to 20-0 after a penalty try that came from another driving maul from a lineout deep in the USA half. The lineout was set up by a late hit penalty by Hercus, which rounded out his miserable day.
“If a couple of things would have gone just a bit differently, we would have seen a much closer scoreline,” O’Sullivan said. “But that’s the way things go, you don’t always get what you deserve. What is dangerous is when you make a couple mistakes and the wheels come off and the score begins to get out of control. I never got that feeling today, they just dug in there until the very end. They played their way out of some of their mistakes and that was very positive to see.”
The Eagle’s backs lacked a real attacking edge most of the afternoon, but that changed when Malifa came on at flyhalf for Hercus.
Within minutes of being on the pitch, Roland Suniula made a big break off of a turnover and took it deep into Ireland territory. Down 20 points, Malifa opted for a drop goal instead of trying to push in for a try. The successful attempt denied Ireland any chance of a shutout and buoyed the Eagle attack.
“It’s a psychological thing,” Malifa explained following the match. “You don’t want to look at the scoreboard and see a zero. It allowed us some go-forward.”
The USA squad struck again in the 64th minute when the Eagles went quick on a penalty and pushed into the Ireland half of the field. Malifa made a nice break through the Irish line and offloaded to Suniula in support for the Eagles' first try of 2009. Malifa added the conversion to cut Ireland’s lead to 20-10.
Ireland added one last try in the dying moments of the game to push their lead to 27-10 and seal victory.
It was a loss for the Eagles, but the 80 minute effort did not go unnoticed. Even with plenty of new players in action, USA played with plenty of conviction and committment—ingredients that have sometimes been lacking in recent years, especially at the breakdown where the Eagles continually caused problems for Ireland.
For the first time in years, the Eagles actually looked like they had a defined style of play instead of simply living off of mistakes handed to them.
The forwards were well organized, played hard, and while the backs lacked punch, they looked dangerous late in the game. Malifa added spark and Suniula had a solid day in attack and on defense.
New cap, Kevin Swiryn also had a solid day on the wing, mostly in defense, but showed strength with the ball and made a couple nice solo tackles including one that saved a try.
Suprisingly, it was the two most experienced backs that had rough days in Hercus and fullback Chris Wyles who looked out of sorts at times during the match.
In all, it was a very encouraging effort out of the Eagles. Now comes the hard task of backing it up this weekend against Wales.
“This was a starting point and we will continue to improve upon our mistakes. There’s no doubt they will be better next week,” O’Sullivan added.
USA takes on Wales June 6 at Toyota Park in Chicago before turning around and traveling to Denver for its first Churchill Cup match June 10 against the Argentina Jaguars.
Ireland 27, USA 10
USA Try: Suniula
USA Conversion: Malifa
USA Drop Goal: Malifa
Ireland Tries: O’Driscoll, Whitten, Best
Ireland Conversions: Keatley 2
Ireland Penalties: Keatley
15 - Chris Wyles (Saracens FC)
14 - Kevin Swiryn (Old Puget Sound Beach RFC)*
13 - Junior Sifa (Middleton RFC)
12 - Roland Suniula (Pearl City RFC)*
11 - Justin Boyd (Dallas Harlequins RFC)
10 - Mike Hercus (Sunshine Coast Stingrays)
9 - Mike Petri (New York Athletic Club) Captain
1 - Mike MacDonald (Leeds Carnegie RFC)
2 - Chris Biller (California)*
3 - Will Johnson (Oxford University)*
4 - John Van Der Giessen (Denver Barbarians RFC)
5 - Hayden Smith (Saracens FC)
6 - Louis Stanfill (New York Athletic Club)
7 - Peter Dahl (Belmont Shore RFC)*
8 - Nic Johnson (Denver Barbarians RFC)*
16 -Matekitonga Moeakiola (Park City Haggis)
17 - Joe Welch (Belmont Shore)
18 - Courtney Mackay (Counties Manukau)
19 - J.J. Gagiani (Univ. of Cape Town)
20 - Tim Usasz (Nottingham RFC)*
21 - Ata Malifa (Belmont Shore RFC)*
22 - Alipate Tuilevuka (Provo Steelers)
15 - Gavin Duffy (Galwegians/Connacht)
14 - Barry Murphy (U.L. Bohemians/Munster)
13 - Darren Cave (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster)
12 - Ian Whitten (Ballymena/Ulster)
11 - Ian Dowling (Shannon/Munster)
10 - Ian Keatley (Galwegians/Connacht)
9 - Peter Stringer (Shannon/Munster)
1 - Tony Buckley (Shannon/Munster)
2 - Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster) Captain
3 - Mike Ross (Harlequins)
4 - Bob Casey (London Irish)
5 - Mick O’Driscoll (Cork Constitution/Munster)
6 - John Muldoon (Galwegians/Connacht)
7 - Niall Ronan (Shannon/Munster)
8 - Denis Leamy (Cork Constitution/Munster)
16 - Sean Cronin (Buccaneers/Connacht)*
17 - Tom Court (Malone/Ulster)
18 - Ryan Caldwell (Dungannon/Ulster)
19 - Donnacha Ryan (Shannon/Munster)
20 - Eoin Reddan (London Wasps)
21 - Niall O’Connor (Belfast Harlequins/Ulster)*
22 - Denis Hurley (Cork Constitution/Munster)*