The USA Men’s National Team hadn’t won on USA soil since 2010 against Russia in Glendale, Colo., and they finally got another one as the Eagles rode a scintillating first half to a 36-20 victory over Georgia at the very same Infinity Park.
The Eagles dominated almost all aspects of play in the first half, and while they were nowhere near as strong in the second period, they held on against a physical Leos side to win.
The game started with Paul Emerick taking the field all alone, in recognition of his 50th cap.
The Eagles pressured early and their quick-rucking style caused all sorts of problems for the Georgians. Quick ball allowed Roland Suniula to almost break through, but while he was stopped, the USA had an easy penalty, which Chris Wyles slotted to give his team a 3-0 lead.
The USA did well to retain the restarts and as a result they kept coming up with the ball. Their quick-offload plan kept them out of slow ruck situations, and that was just as well, given how hard Georgia was tackling.
After a Wyles miss for goal, the USA got their first try. Wing Luke Hume made a shifty break, and after a series of offloads in traffic, the Eagles got into the Georgian 22. A miscue at the lineout – not straight, gave the Eagles a nice attacking opportunity of the lineout, and they made it work, starting a maul, running a few pick-and-drives, send it wide, and then back for Andrew Suniula, who just made it to the line and an 8-0 lead.
Georgia actually got the ball back and tried to push up the middle. But the USA defended the maul very well.
One indication of how things were going for Georgia – the first scrum didn’t pack down until 14 minutes. It ended in a penalty against the USA.
With a little bit of continuity, Georgia fired back. A sneaky move weak saw wing Irakli Machkhaneli flip to the other wing, Alexander Todua. Todua raced down the line and was just stopped by Luke Hume. Mike Petri was there as well, but it wasn’t enough as flyhalf Merab Kvirikashvili was in support to score in the corner.
That made it 8-5, but the Eagles got some points back quickly. A half break by Taylor Mokate and another by Paul Emerick set up a penalty and Wyles was good with the kick to make it 11-5 at 23 minutes.
It was 18-5 moments later. After a series of kicks traded back and forth, Roland Suniula fielded the booted ball and sent a wide pass to Paul Emerick. The center broke one tackle, set up the recycle, and Hume spun through some more Lelo attention to get further into Georgia territory.
Then the big break. The ball was spun to Todd Clever out in the backline, he just got past a defender, and offloaded to Taylor Mokate, who send a bounced pass to James Paterson on the wing.
Paterson broke a tackle, and cut inside, and then fed Mokate who was in support for a superb try. That was a key moment for the Eagles, as they turned an 11-5 lead into an 18-5 advantage (Wyles converted).
Georgia got a penalty to make it 18-8, but in the final seven minutes of the half, the Eagles put the foot on the neck.
Hume kicked ahead, and chased well, forcing Georgian hooker Revaz Belkania to boot the ball. He missed touch and Mokate did well to gather the ball and run into the Georgian chasers. The quick ruck allowed Andrew Suniula to take the ball and sidestep through a gap before passing to Mike Petri for a brilliant score. Wyles kicked the conversion, and moments later, a penalty in front of the posts made it 28-8. That’s how the half ended.
The second half promised to be more of the same, but it wasn’t quite. Georgia did a much better job securing possession, and kicked deep to challenge the USA.
The Eagles defense was stout, with Chris Biller and Clever putting in some big tackles. But Georgia, for the most part, had the ball.
The Eagles started the second half without Emerick, who injured a muscle in his rib cage and was struggling to breath. Whether that took a little wind out of the USA sails is debatable, but they struggled to regain that momentum.
They were also a bit unlucky. The move of the day wasn’t a try, but was pretty to watch. Scott LaValla took a lineout, Mike Petri sent a pass to Roland Suniula, who skipped to his brother Andrew, who skipped to Chris Wyles. Wyles hit Hume at pace and the wing kicked into in-goal and dove to just touch down the rolling ball before it rolled dead.
No try, though, as one of the passes was deemed forward.
Instead, it was the Georgian backs that scored. After LaValla stole an attacking lineout throw, the Eagles knocked the ball on, and from that scrum Georgia quick-tapped a panelty, and sent the ball out to their centers. Outside center Davit Kacharava flipped the ball somehow to inside center Merab Sharikadze, who went in. The Eagles cried obstruction, but the movement looked good. 28-13.
The Eagles retained the restarted, moved up field, and got a penalty to get three back – Wyles was good to make it 31-13 at 57 minutes.
But Georgia wasn’t done. They turned the ball over at midfield after a promising movement by the USA, and scrumhalf and captain Irakli Abuseridze kicked downfield. The ball bounced weirdly for Hume and Georgia almost scored right then. The USA cover defense was there, though, but after five phases by Georgia, Kacharava stretched over in a big pileup to make it 31-20.
That was a worry for the USA, as they had now let the Lelos back in the game. But after that, the Eagles settled down a little. They had several good opportunities to score more, but suddenly their lineout, superb all game, failed them.
In the end, the killer blow came from good defensive pressure. A grubber by the Georgia backs was blocked by Roland Suniula’s foot. Clever chased the loose ball, caught it in the air and, in one movement, dished it to Paterson for the wing’s try on his home ground. That put the game away, and after that it was just a case of winding the game down.
The USA, in the end, played some entertaining rugby and won an entertaining game. But they also had a game in the bag and let their opponents edge closer. It was a good victory, but also a lesson to learn.
“We came out on our front foot today; we were looking to take it to ‘em and we wanted to open it up and move them around,” said USA Head Coach Mike Tolkin. “We opened it up and made them pay a little bit. We were also sloppy with the ball and got ahead of ourselves a little bit. In terms of identifying the holes and going into space, we were happy with that.”
In the second half, Tolkin said the team tried too often to score a try in one phase, and were too impatient.
“We were pushing it, and I don’t think we read the holes as well,” he said. “We could have switched fields more and had mismatches.”
Leading the way for the Eagles on an evening of many good performances, were the brothers of Roland and Andrew Suniula. Andrew Suniula challenged defenders more than he ever has. Also strong was hooker Chris Biller, who was good in the set piece and very active in loose play.
Tries: A. Suniula, Mokate, Petri, Paterson
Convs: Wyles 2
Pens: Wyles 4
Tries: Kvirikashvili, Sharikadze, Kacharava
Pens: Kvirikashvili, Malaguradze