Unable to get the ball, keep the ball, or prevent outside backs from penetrating on a regular basis, the USA put in an overall poor performance in losing 44-13 to Tonga Wednesday afternoon at the Esher RFC in Surrey, England.
The loss means the Eagles are 0-2 in their Churchill Cup pool, and they didn’t look like they were good enough to get another victory in the Bowl Final.
Viliami Iongi scored four tries against the Eagles, who just seemed unable to mark him properly, but the story was really the inability of the United States to produce any sort of quick go-forward ball. When they did make breaks, they consistently took far, far, far too long to recycle the ball and get moving again. Their two examples of quick ball produced their lone try, courtesy of Paul Emerick, and a penalty goal.
The Eagles entered the game showing off their brand new kit, which includes a blue V with white stars. They looked a little like longtime motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel, but their play was not the stuff of prime-time specials.
The USA was also badly hurt by referee Romain Poite, who seemed unable to see red Tongan jerseys coming in from the side, but was happy to penalize the Americans for that very infraction. But in the end, the Yanks had nobody to look at but themselves.
The first movement for the USA produced a knock-on in the backs, Paul Emerick shaking his head at the mistake. And moments later they conceded a penalty that flyhalf Kurt Morath easily kicked.
From the restart Inaki Basauri made a big tackle and Chris Biller did well to steal the ball from the ruck. The Eagles got a penalty, but Nese Malifa missed the kick. The Americans had the ball back from the 22 dropout, but a forward pass from Roland Suniula to Paul Emerick gave away the ball, and the USA hardly saw it for much of the rest of the first half.
After that, the game was a series of USA errors, and Tonga dominating possession. Tonga made gains when they took the ball upfield, often because the USA’s arm tackling was weak, and they they tackled higher for the ball, they did not stop the Tonga runners in their tracks.
For the game, the USA missed 13 tackles and made 15 handling errors. When they had the ball, they gave it back. Even when they didn’t knock it on, they (usually Tim Usasz at the scrumhalf) kicked the ball away to a team that ran the ball extremely well. Even when they made tackles they got into trouble, because poor communication saw some Tonga's tackled in open field by two or three Americans, leaving support runners free and open.
Tonga extended their lead by getting a penalty and going for the lineout. They spun the ball wide to Iongi, and with Kevin Swiryn going for an interception, Iongi had no one to stop him.
Then Todd Clever was penalized right in front of the posts. No problem for Norath, 13-0.
The USA’s efforts to tackle high and rip the ball out finally worked, as Biller tore the ball free and Lou Stanfill set off downfield. He ran 50 meters before wisely taking the tackle. Quick ball allowed Shawn Pittman to take a pass at pace, and while the USA almost lost the ball in the ruck, they were able to send it wide, where a long pass from Malifa to Roland Suniula allowed the fullback to pass to Emerick for the center’s third try in his last three test matches.
After that the Eagles seemed to pick up their game. Their lineout was working relatively well, and with Nic Johnson battling at the back of the scrum to get the ball out and forward, they were surviving in that arena.
They were helped by the fact that Tonga was down to 14 men, as Tonga Lea’Aetoa had been harshly sin-binned for a high tackle.
With time winding down the USA again threatened the Tonga line. Using their forwards they were close on several occasions, and finally lock Scott LaValla, one of the few bright spots for the USA team, surged to the line. LaValla was stretching out to score when a Tonga hand knocked the ball loose. It was a clear knock-on and LaValla was clearly angry he had missed his chance to give the USA the lead.
One wonders how that might have changed the USA confidence. Urged by Head Coach Eddie O’Sullivan before the game to be physical and uncompromising, they hadn’t been yet. In the second half, with Shawn Pittman off with a yellow card, it all began to go sideways.
Iongidid well in support and shrugged away some confused, grasping arms to score and make it 20-13. Marath added a penalty to make it 23-13, and suddenly the Eagles were under pressure.
A penalty for holding on forced by Eric Fry gave the USA a lineout near the Tonga line. But their maul was sloppy and the Americans were called for obstruction. There followed a scrum, and then a penalty for Tonga, and a good scoring opportunity was lost.
Colin Hawley did well to catch a wide kick and fell right to the ground. A Tongan defender fell right on top of him, normally an automatic penalty, but no call and the resulting turnover led to the ball making its way to Iongi on the opposite. Tonga executed a 3-on-2 nicely to put Iongi away, but one wondered where the Eagle communication was to get more bodies on that side.
And the final indignity as the half ticked away. An excellent moved from the Americans, started by Roland Suniula and moved on by Kevin Swiryn, got close to the line. Both Emerick and LaValla were very close, but no try. The Eagles got a penalty, though, and as captain Todd Clever tried to take a tap and get a try, the referee stopped him. Someone, it seemed, had brought the kicking tee onto the field. The decision to go for points was odd, certainly. The USA was right under the posts and a try there could have netted seven, putting the USA within two scores at 30-17. Instead, Malifa easily kicked the penalty to make it 30-13, still three scores out.
It turned out not to matter, as the Americans fell apart.
Iongi blew through tackles on the wing, and then up the middle for his four. And then Tonga capped it with a try for No. 8 Viliami Ma’Afu, who just had to step over the line to score. Marath’s kicking was excellent, and those tries made it 44-13.
The USA was not helped by referee Poite’s inconsistency around the breakdown, but that was minor. Very poor tackling, very poor defensive alignment, kicking the ball to a team that was running really well, fumbling the ball, and their inability to get some go-forward, recycle quickly, and get go-forward again, were all on them. They missed 13 tackles and made 15 handling errors, and deserved to lose.
There were a few bright spots. Emerick was still their best back, Johnson did all he could to get something out of the scrum, and LaValla was very strong. Their attack was better when Mike Petri was at scrumhalf, but Tim Usasz actually played well and aggressively. His kicking, however, did the USA no good. In the lineout the USA was often effective, but in key lineouts when attacking, they messed up - obstruction in the maul, taking too long to throw the ball in, or missed assignments.
“Extremely disappointed,” said Clever after the match. “We came out here after another few days of tough training and couldn’t get it together. We stepped up a lot of the time but couldn’t put it together for the full 80 minutes. We’re just not on the same page.”
Clever also said his team was likely tired, having put in two-a-days leading into this match.
“We now have ten days to get the bodies right and hopefully out attitude right as well,” he said of the Bowl Final, set for a week from Saturday.
Tries: Iongi 4, Ma’Afu
Convs: Marath 5
Pens: Marath 3
Pens: Malifa 2