Only two months out from their meeting at Rugby World Cup 2015, USA have claimed a confidence-boosting 23-18 victory over their Pool B opponents Japan in the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup on Saturday.
The USA Eagles bounced back from a 21-16 defeat by another of Pool B rivals in Samoa last weekend to record a first win over the Brave Blossoms since their meeting at Rugby World Cup 2003 in Australia.
The hosts started brightly, keeping hold of the ball for the majority of the first 20 minutes at Bonney Field, Mike Petri dictating the play with quick ball from the breakdown and causing a frustrated Japanese outfit to concede a number of penalties.
AJ MacGinty kicked his first of six penalties in the seventh minute to give the Eagles a lead for the first time in this year’s Pacific Nations Cup. He kicked a second just before the end of the first quarter and then captain Chris Wyles missed with an attempted drop goal.
Harumichi Tatekawa and MacGinty traded penalties before some resolute defence restricted the Brave Blossoms to another penalty as half-time approached. However, that pressure ultimately told when full-back Yoshikazu Fujita raced through the Eagles’ defence to send Akihito Yamada over
With an 11-9 lead to take into the second half, Tatekawa missed another penalty shortly after the restart but when Takudzwa Ngwenya was yellow carded for a deliberate knock-down it gave the Japanese an advantage they seized upon, Holani Ryu Koliniashi going over from a scrum.
The momentum was with Japan but the Eagles managed to hold out and instead MacGinty cut the deficit to 18-12 with another penalty. They again had to defend resolutely but once Ireland-born MacGinty cut the deficit to just three the Eagles looked the more likely to win.
With fresh impetus, the Eagles drove over the line from a lineout to hit the front at 23-18 with just over 10 minutes to go. They spent much of that time on the defensive, but the chants and foot-stomping by the home crowd proved inspiring and the Eagles held firm to claim the win.
“The home support was great,” Tolkin said. “People had a long day; they were here for two games and a lot of hours, but they were really greaat down to the wire. They helped us hang in there when it was tough at the end.”
NO SPLITTING PACIFIC ISLAND RIVALS
The first match of the day at Bonney Field was a battle for Pacific pride and one that went right down to the wire, Samoa replacement Patrick Fa’apale kicking a 78th–minute penalty to secure a 30-30 draw with Fiji.
Fiji and Samoa had both won their opening Pacific Nations Cup matches last weekend, against Tonga and USA respectively, and it was a typical encounter between two Pacific Island nations, each hungry for a morale-boosting victory as the countdown to RWC 2015 continues.
Michael Stanley kicked Samoa into an early lead and after their captain Alesana Tuilagi had lost the ball forward on the line, the Flying Fijians came storming back with two tries in quick succession, both through second-row Leone Nakarawa to lead 12-3.
Samoa, the higher ranked of the two nations, responded just before the end of the first quarter, centre Paul Perez dotting down, but it was Fiji who went at half-time leading 17-10 after full-back Metuisela Talebula scored his side’s third try late in the half.
Within two minutes of the restart that lead had grown to 24-10 after centre Gabiriele Lovobalavu had jinked his way over the line and a penalty by Ben Volavola left Samoa with work to do with half an hour remaining.
The recovery began when prop Anthony Perenise popped up on the wing to score Samoa’s second try and then just past the hour mark, the ball came back from a maul and Perez stepped his way through three players to race over the line but once again Stanley missed the conversion.
With seven minutes to go Samoa secured the try bonus point when a series of pick and go’s finally saw flanker TJ Ioane crash over the line, Stanley finding his kicking boots to tie the scores at 27-27.
The momentum was Samoa’s after three unanswered tries but instead it was Fiji who hit the front again with 76 minutes on the clock, Volavola kicking a penalty that looked like it would be the match-winner until Fa’apale had the final say to Samoa’s relief.
TONGA FIGHT BACK TO WIN
The other round two match took place in Burnaby with Tonga running out 28-18 winners over their hosts Canada despite getting off to a slow start at the Swanguard Stadium.
Hooker Aaron Carpenter gave Canada the perfect start when he bulldozed his way over the line in only the third minute, Gordon McRorie adding the conversion and then kicking a penalty to make it 10-0 by the 12th minute.
Kurt Morath missed with his first effort but then opened Tonga’s account with a penalty in the 19th minute, but before long fly-half Liam Underwood broke through the ‘Ikale Tahi defence and offloaded to Carpenter for the hooker to score his first test try double.
A yellow card, though, for Underwood gave Tonga an advantage they quickly converted to cut the deficit to 15-10 at half-time, scrum-half Sonatane Takulua dotting down their first try. Within five minutes of the restart, Tonga hit the front for the first time, replacement Otulea Katoa diving over in the corner after a driving maul from a lineout.
Morath’s conversion and another penalty took Tonga out to 20-15 before he and Canada scrum-half Gordon McRorie traded penalties again to keep the match in the balance with just under half an hour to go in Burnaby.
The score remained at 23-18 until Steve Mafi sliced through the Canadian line and sent Takulua over for his second try of the match. There was still 10 minutes to go but despite piling on the pressure, Canada couldn’t find the scores they needed to make it five wins in a row against Tonga.
“I thought the first 15 or so minutes we played really well,” Canada coach Kieran Crowley said. “After that our set piece didn’t go well and then we just turned over too many balls. There was improvement in a lot of areas but still a lot of areas to improve.
“We had those good periods but you’ve got to do it for the whole game. Take your hat off to Tonga, they fought back, got their game going, made a couple of line breaks which led to points and they deserved their win in the end. We’ve got to regroup, look at the footage and learn from it.”
His counterpart Mana Otai added: “It was 15-3 at one stage and we were staring down the barrel, but I think the boys showed character to crawl out of that. It was really pleasing. I guess that is the nature of the game, we were also desperate for the win. We have some long history of losing to Canada and that was always at the back of our minds so all credit to the guys, they stuck at it.”
The pool stages of the Pacific Nations Cup 2015 conclude on Wednesday in Toronto when USA tackle Tonga, Fiji face Japan and hosts Canada meet Samoa at BMO Field. The final rankings will then determine who faces who on the finals day in Vancouver on 3 August.
Photo credit: Paul Rudman (main) and Jeff Bell