Their jerseys stained, their bodies bruised, their voices soaring, the USA Eagles national rugby team posed for photos in front of a giant blue sign that said simply, in all capital letters: QUALIFIED.
“U-S-A, U-S-A,” they chanted, over and over.
The celebration, and significance, of their 52-16 win last Saturday afternoon against Canada before a crowd of 5,000-plus at USD’s Torero Stadium was less that they secured a spot in the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
It was which spot: America 1.
It marked the first time the Eagles have earned the top qualifying spot from the Americas, and the first time Canada has not. And, as such, there was a palpable sense of two rugby nations headed in opposite directions Saturday, a changing a seminal moment of sorts. “At the end of the day, we still have to go to the World Cup and win some games,” said Cam Dolan, who scored two tries. “But we got this monkey off our back.”
The Eagles are 3-22 overall at the World Cup and have never advanced out of pool play. They’ve lost six straight after going 0-4 in 2015, including a 64-0 spanking by South Africa. In 2011, they lost 67-5 to Australia.
In Japan, they’ll slot into Pool C with No. 2-ranked England, No. 8 France, No. 9 Argentina and a yet-to-be-determined entrant from Oceania (likely Fiji, Tonga or Samoa). At No. 17, the Eagles figure to be the lowest-ranked team in the group, and only the two top advances to the knockout stage.
But at least the Eagles, if they aren’t exactly flying, are flapping their wings. They extended their unbeaten streak against their northern rival to seven, and they showed that last week’s late collapse in Hamilton, Ontario, in the opener of the two-leg qualifying series – tying 28-28 after leading 28-18 – was more fluke than fact. The return leg on Torero Stadium’s pristine field in front of a near-capacity crowd was headed in the same direction, the Eagles taking a 19-6 lead only for Canada to close to 19-16 moments into the second half.
“The game eerily started to look like last week,” USA vice-captain and Minnesota native Nate Augspurger said. “But we made a decision as a team to believe that wasn’t going to be the outcome.”
And it wasn’t. In a mere six minutes, it went from 26-16 to 47-16. “We pulled our way back, like last week,” said Mark Anscombe, Canada’s coach by way of New Zealand. “But after that we couldn’t contain them – just too big, too strong, and too powerful. Those last 20 minutes they ran all over us.”
Said Augspurger: “We were able to make them pay and be pretty ruthless.”
As much as last Saturday was a new beginning for the Eagles, it was also a farewell. Captain Todd Clever is retiring after a record 76 appearances, and Coach John Mitchell is headed back to South Africa. But they’ll have time to find replacements, not having to worry about navigating the wilds of World Cup qualifying.
Canada will have to do that instead. Next up is a two-leg series against improving Uruguay in January for a spot in Japan. Lose that, and they’d enter a last-chance, four-team repechage for the 20th and final spot in the World Cup.
Mitchell, meanwhile, had some harsh parting words for the USA Rugby, the sport’s national governing body.
“What I love about today is that it’s not so much about us qualifying,” Mitchell said. “It’s about this group leaving a statement that it’s time the USA Eagles are properly supported and resourced by USA Rugby … These guys have been living in dormitories. They’ve been eating (bad) food. They haven’t complained one iota. They’ve stayed collected and on task
“It’s time for USA Rugby to commit to these players.”
Starting No. 8 Cam Dolan and reserve hooker Joe Taufete’e each scored two tries for the U.S. The Americans finished off the two-leg Qualifier series with a 74-42 advantage.
“We wanted to play with confidence in the first half, especially the first 10 minutes,” center Bryce Campbell said at halftime. “We came out firing and it worked well for us.”
After Canada failed to clear far enough with a high kick in its own end, fly half AJ MacGinty broke the gain line at midfield and found Ryan Matyas along the touch line. The wing sent the ball back inside to Campbell, who one-handed it to Dolan in contact for the opening score, 5-0.
Not five minutes later, lock Nick Civetta stole the ball from Canada and MacGinty strayed from contact before passing to onrushing flanker Tony Lamborn. Dolan followed the play and broke a tackle to slide in for his second try, 12-0.
Ill-discipline in Canada’s first attacking possession resulted in fly half Gordon McRorie’s first of three penalty goals in the 19th minute. Dolan broke Canadians hearts for a third time in the half with an assist in setting Nate Brakeley up for the lock’s first career try, 19-3. McRorie rounded out the first-half scoring at 19-9 with his final two penalty goals, the second following a yellow card shown to Lamborn at the stroke of halftime.
The Eagles regrouped from a possession-heavy first half with the intention of bringing the backs into play more, but they had to kill off the sinning first. Wing Mike Te’o brought down wing Dan Moor on a break just short of the line in the first minute of the second half, though the Canadian found teammate Admir Cejvanovic in space for the visitors’ only try of the game, 19-16.
Missing big-time center DTH van der Merwe and winger Taylor Paris, both late scratches for Saturday’s match, Canada did not have an answer for the U.S. substitutes and conditioning once the teams were back on a level playing field. Taufete’e’s dot-downs from two mauls eight minutes apart preceded one of the prettiest Eagle tries in recent memory.
Full back Madison Hughes, in his first action for the XVs National Team since November 2016, brought down a high ball under pressure outside the U.S. 22 two minutes into a sin-binning for Tyler Ardron. The ball was swung to Matyas for a winding break to the opposite 10, where scrum half Nate Augspurger received the well-timed offload for the try beside the posts.
The U.S. lead in the 64th minute was 40-16 before Dino Waldren crashed over the line with his first career test try, then reserve second-row forward David Tameilau finished off the day with a five-pointer for the 52-16 final.