The Unites States entered Sunday night’s finale hungry for a win before departing Japan with a similarly eager Tonga on the other end. Looking to leave on a high note, the Men’s Eagles displayed some defensive resiliency but weren’t able to hold a late Tongan surge and eventually fall 31-19. The USA will close the books on their Rugby World Cup 2019 campaign 0-4, but in a positive light return to their clubs with quality experience.
“We spoke before the game about taking advantage of opportunities,” commented Head Coach Gary Gold, “We had a fantastic passage of play for 18 phases, but we lose the ball and they run the length of the field, so that was the game gone.
“Disappointed from that point of view, but from another point of view I’m incredibly proud of this group. You can really see how hard they have worked in trying to make a statement.”
Tonga kicked off into the strong wind to start the game where a series of turnovers ensued from each side. While the USA spent a majority of time in their own end, the story for Tonga was costly errors that kept them off the board on a number of occasions. One or two sure breakaways resulted in fumbles and knock ons where the US remained encouraged to keep the pressure.
Spending time within their own 22-meter line, The United States defense however was noticeably resilient with earned turnovers on their own try line. The first break for Tonga came in the 17th minute when Viliami Lolohea laid down a number of fends up the middle to gain ground. Out of the ruck Tonga was able to fall over the line for the first seven points.
Soon after Blaine Scully walked off the field with injury where Mike Te’o subbed on in the 20th minute. Making an immediate impact, Te’o found himself with space on the wing, quickly cut back towards the middle to avoid a tackle and find the pay dirt. Not five minutes later the Eagles were back on the Tonga 5-meter line and began phases with drives on the gain line. A fumbled ball backwards conveniently allowed Will Hooley to spin around and collect it, only to find Te’o again out wide, this time undefended and free to pace in for another try.
Looking to take momentum into halftime, Tonga raced up the wing where Fisiihoi carried the ball clear into the endzone but Ruben De Haas in chase wrapped for a tackle from behind and was able to get a hand on the ball – forcing a knock on before he could fall on the ball for points.
Heading into halftime, the United States had their first lead of the tournament, 12-7.
As the second half kicked off, the aerial game started with almost a dozen kick and returns. Tonga again found themselves on the attack, but again committed the error with a miss pass over the head of their open wing.
Tonga’s errors came as the United States continued to capitalize on the miscues and hold pressure, no matter field location. More times than not when Tonga would find themselves knocking on the door of the USA line, resilient defense earned turnovers and kept points off the board. That resilience showed in the 51’ when Tonga elected to kick for posts over the 5-meter scrum.
Heading into the homestretch, USA held a slim 12-10 lead.
Tonga began to gain control off a USA miscue where quality phasing from the Eagles resulted in a turnover and Tonga noticed the undefended backfield. A kick into space turned foot race for the ball swung in the oppositions favor and Tonga earned back the lead. In short order, they would earn their own pair of back-to-back tries four minutes later. Just like that, the United States find themselves in a 24-12 hole.
Gold noted, “You know that’s what Tonga bring, they’re able to work magic, are good steppers and can ask some good questions of our defense.”
Following a flurry of subs with Nate Augspurger now on at scrumhalf directing traffic, Tony Lamborn was able to pick and go under the posts with a minute left, giving the USA hope but desperate for possession with time expiring.
Tonga earned yardage to the USA line where a penalty earned them a set piece. Surprisingly opting out of the dagger penalty goal, both teams went to scrum and Tonga was able to capitalize on the left and dive in for the last try of the game. Sealing the 31-19 victory. Regardless of result, this well contested match was a cracker for fans to watch.
Captain Blaine Scully reflected on the tournament as a whole, “I think if anything it demonstrates how hard it is to win a game at the Rugby World Cup. We demonstrated that we are a competitive team, but the margin is very small between being competitive here and getting a result.
But that the game of rugby, that’s life in the area. For us it’s about squeezing every bit we can out of this experience where hopefully it can catapult this team into the next four-year cycle.”
Gold continued, “There was a tremendous amount of learnings that we have taken and will continue to take when we reflect on this World Cup campaign. None more so than our ability to take opportunities.
There are aspects of our game that we have seen now through this tournament, that we now need to put a lot of time and energy into. We’re disappointed to come away now, but we’re a better team because of it.”
When it’s all said and done, a winless stretch is not what the Eagles had hoped for when they first gathered for this assembly back in June, but quality experience and proud representation of their country was wholeheartedly earned. With the squad returning home to MLR and their respective clubs, a sense of unity can be visibly seen between each man. Looking ahead to France 2023, the team and union remain encouraged.