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Houston, the Eagle Has Landed

Written By: Adam McQueen

Well, that was an exciting weekend of international rugby. Forget Ireland winning their first test match in Australia for almost thirty years, South Africa’s re-emergence after completing another comeback victory against England, or even France U20 capturing their first ever Junior World Championship – the most exciting moment of international rugby this weekend occurred on a sizzling Saturday night at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, Texas.

The USA Eagles maintained their unblemished record of 2018 with a heart-thumping 30-29 victory over Scotland, the first win against a tier-one nation in American rugby history.

The Scots came out hotter than the humid Houston conditions with a try in the first minute of play courtesy of a brilliant line break by captain Stuart Hogg and capped off by winger Blair Kinghorn, commencing what looked to be another American loss to world class opposition. The energy of the Eagles fans in attendance, who were rocking just moments earlier, quickly deflated when Kinghorn then stroked the difficult conversion from the far-right touchline. A familiar dread set in to those watching.

However, the Eagles refused to fade and defended stoutly amidst a barrage of Scottish phase play that stretched the Americans from sideline to sideline. Defensive physicality has been the foundation of recent American success and this match proved no different. The forward pack, spearheaded by Samu Manoa and Joe Taufete’e, laid thunderous hits to prevent the Eagles from imploding early. Captain Blaine Scully lauded the efforts of the men up front after the match:

“Credit to our pack for an unbelievable performance because the reality is it’s the boys up front who determine who wins test matches. How deep can they go?” queried Scully. “It’s not an accident that we defended that well, we trained that. We trained being under that much pressure.”

With their first spell of possession, the Eagles displayed composure in attack by aggressively contesting the gainline with ball carriers, providing a glimmer of hope that a rout was not on the cards. After consecutive contestable cross-field kicks from AJ MacGinty and Will Hooley sent the Scottish wingers reeling, MacGinty was able to trim the deficit to 7-3 with a penalty kick.

Nevertheless, the Scottish attack persisted with an array of probing kicks from Hogg and young flyhalf Adam Hastings. The visiting side were reinvigorated by the water stoppage at the twenty minute mark and broke the game wide open through the Horne family connection; Veteran Peter Horne sliced through the defense with a flat line and quickly found the support of his brother, George, who scampered towards the sticks. Samu Manoa crumpled Horne just before the try line – however, the TMO review declared it to be a high tackle and a penalty try was awarded. To add insult to injury, Manoa was sent to the sin bin for a ten minute break.

The ill-disciplined Scottish defense immediately allowed MacGinty to bring the score to 14-6 with a cheap offside call. MacGinty then displayed his game breaking talent off of the ensuing kickoff. The flyhalf cut the Scottish defense to ribbons with a right-footed step and then, the very next phase, pinned the visitors deep inside their own half with a deft kick that skidded to touch.

However, a booming penalty kick to touch from the illustrious Hogg suddenly had the short-handed Eagles camped on their goal line once more. The Scottish driving maul, which had its way with Canada the previous week, made light of work the Eagles and hooker George Turner dove over for a commanding 21-6 lead. The try marked Turner’s fourth in the last 85 minutes of play, a scoring rate that any winger would be proud of.

With the game looking ominously out of reach, it was time for another hooker to take the occasion by the scruff of the neck. Joe Taufete’e punctured the defense with two bulldozing carries as the Americans repeatedly hammered toward the line in the 35th minute. Third time proved to be the charm for the Worcester man as he provided some dazzling footwork to pull off a Madden-esque spin move for a well deserved first try for the Eagles. Kinghorn then slotted a penalty at the half-time whistle to bring the score to 24-13 at the break.

However, Taufete’e was not done leaving his imprint on the game just yet.

With the Eagles driving maul stalling several meters from the Scottish line in the 43rd minute, the hooker peeled off toward a wave of blue jerseys. Taufete’e then bounced off four would-be Scottish tacklers on a trademark shuddering run, punctuated by an emphatic dive over the line with two defenders draped on either leg. The momentum had firmly shifted in the Americans direction.

Taufete’e personified the physicality that the Eagles needed in order to compete with Scotland. He was not alone, as flankers Hanco Germishuys and John Quill were their normal destructive selves. The imposing midfield combination of Paul Lasike and Bryce Campbell were also beginning to wear on the Scots as they earned front foot ball, a clear target of Gary Gold’s game-plan:

“The game has and will always be about the gainline,” Gold said in the postgame press conference. “So when you have guys like that and an explosive back three, you want to get them the ball. Hopefully, if they do their job, can dent the defense, and get over the gainline and the ball can be reasonably quick, you can give yourself a better platform. When that doesn’t happen, you don’t win rugby games.”

After another MacGinty penalty cut the Scottish lead to one, the Eagles went in pursuit of their first lead of the game. The USA’s onslaught repeatedly fell victim to handling errors as the conditions began to worsen. MacGinty noted that the weather made even the simplest of skills difficult to perform.

“It wasn’t easy conditions. The ball was so slippery and going into contact with it was like a bar of soap. It was certainly difficult to hold onto.”

The humidity that had plagued the Eagles' attack during the second half would soon work in their favour. As both sides traded kicks in a game of aerial ping-pong, the ball suddenly slipped between Matt Fagerson’s fingertips just outside the Scottish 22 metre line. MacGinty, ever the opportunist, brilliantly scooped the loose ball with one hand and offloaded to the supporting Hanco Germishuys, who rumbled over the line to give the Eagles the lead.

“The game was so tight so we didn’t want to play in our own half and we wanted to put them under a bit of pressure,” MacGinty said, reflecting on the game-changing moment. “Stuart Hogg has such a great boot and he actually chased that kick and left their backrow [to field the kick]. It was such a greasy ball that I just was trying to put it up there and was actually going to try and smash him when he caught it. Luckily it went through his hands and popped right up to me.”

The crowd was then sent into raptures as MacGinty thumped the sideline conversion, bringing the score to 30-24. Reinforcements began to trickle onto the field for the final quarter of the game for each side, yet none made a greater impact than Ben Landry. The backrow replacement, along with Shaun Davies, saved a surefire try by Mark Bennett as they combined to punch the ball from the Scot’s arms as he slid across the try line.

With only ten minutes remaining, the Scottish attack laid siege on an Eagles defense that was running on fumes. American bodies flew across the park in desperation, yet it was seemingly all in vain after Dougie Fife finally sprung through into the corner for the score four minutes into stoppage time. Both sides laid in tatters on the field – eighty four minutes of gruesome, physical rugby came down to one final decisive moment.

Kinghorn lined the kick up. Took four steps back. Two deep breaths. And then the flags stayed down.

Anything less than an historic win for USA rugby would have felt unjust – they were the better team on the day and thankfully the rugby gods agreed. Although the fans and players alike were elated as they celebrated, this victory was not a fluke – nor will it be a one-off.

There is a sense of understanding and purpose amongst the Eagles players on both sides of the ball, no doubt thanks to Gary Gold’s coaching philosophy. This clarity has been the driving force behind their success the over past year under Gold. The Americans were accurate at the set-piece, utilized their battering ram Paul Lasike to ensure clean ball, and played in the correct areas of the field.

Simply put, they executed the minute details that are needed to beat world class opposition in the most testing of conditions.

It is also clear that the Eagles now have a handful of world class talent themselves. Anyone familiar with the Aviva Premiership will be well aware of the skill that MacGinty oozes in every facet of the game. More importantly, the spine of the Eagles XV – hooker Taufete’e, eight man Cam Dolan, and MacGinty’s halfback partner Shaun Davies – are all capable of matching up against any opponent.

The Eagles have had talent before. However, they are now also anchored by a pool of MLR players who clearly looked fitter, stronger, and more prepared for international competition than ever before. In previous years, the USA would reluctantly bring on substitutes and the game would subsequently drift out of reach. However, on Saturday the introduction of Augsperger, Landry, and Peterson reinvigorated the Americans in the sweltering heat.

The Eagles will now head north to take on Canada in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The United States have emerged winners in seven of the last eight encounters with their cross-border rivals and will be heavily favoured to secure another comprehensive victory.

If all follows script this Saturday, the Eagles will celebrate their best ever Summer Series performance just as the World Cup begins to roll around.

Tier-one nations beware – the sleeping giant has awakened.