The USA v. Ireland match started with a flood of emotion. A packed Stadium Taranaki, resplendent in green Come on Ireland! flags, and a few Stars and Stripes too, cheered the US Marine Corps Pacific Band, thundered at the end of a moment of silence for the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks, and belted out two anthems unrivaled in power for such a small stadium. The game live up to that intro.
Ireland won 22-10, and were in control for much of the evening, but the USA put on an inspirational and hard-nosed performance.
The key to the game for the USA was no mystery - avoid the knock-ons and you avoid defending scrums. But it's not so easy when a team is trying to make you knock the ball forward. The first lineout of the match was nabbed nicely by Hayden Smith, but a stray Irish hand forced the ball from his hands. Knock-on, scrum, and there the Irish shoved the Americans away and took and easy penalty.
Jonathon Sexton lined up the kick, but missed. Ireland returned to the front foot from the 22 dropout, as wing Keith Earls burst through the line and looked set to set up a try. Instead he was met by Roland Suniula, who dumped the Irishman on his backside and knocked the ball from his grasp.
Ireland pressed on and threatened the Eagle line twice from close-in lineouts. Several outstanding goal-line tackles, notably from Mike MacDonald and Nic Johnson, held the off, and then Taku Ngwenya spoiled an overlap with a massive blitz tackle.
The Eagles got a penalty to clear their lines, but couldn't find touch, and were back on the defense again.
Then Ireland caught a break. Hayden Smith made a tackle on his ten-meter line and was through the tackle area to spoil the ball. He was wrongly called off side by referee Craig Joubert, and despite a long appeal from Todd Clever, the penalty stood. Sexton lineup the straight-on kick as the rain came down, but missed right.
The Eagles finally got the ball after that. Wing Tommy Bowe fumbled the dropout and from the scrum the Americans ran an effective move. Paul Emerick made some yardage and after a surge by Andrew Suniula, Mike Petri box-kicked for Ngwenya. The wing had his sights on the ball and it almost bounced for him. Had he grabbed it, it would have been a sure try.
Ireland's next foray came from scrumhalf Conor Murray. The #9 dummied his way through the USA line but was dragged down superbly by Clever. The USA captain was penalized, though, for not releasing the ballcarrier, and Sexton had no trouble kicking the easy penalty.
Ireland led 3-0 at 16 minutes.
The Eagles rebounded well. They pinned Ireland deep, handled a grubber kick from Bowe, and pushed back. Petri's box kick to space rolled nicely into touch. Ireland won the lineout but a USA arm blocked their clearance kick. Todd Clever recovered the ball and they were at it again. A grubber from Roland Suniula didn't find its mark, but the Eagles got a penalty.
Far off to the left James Paterson tried to use the wind to guide the ball in, but he over-estimated the wind's strength, and he missed wide right.
The Eagles looked much more adventurous with the ball than in recent games. They unleashed a few switch moves between Petri and wings coming off the sideline. Ngwenya slipped through a couple of tackles, but also slipped on the wet grass. But those moves were also risky.
One such pass missed its mark and Blaine Scully had to retrieve the ball, and run worryingly backwards until he got some help.
Still, helped by some smart grubbers onto the slick grass, the Eagles spent the next ten minutes after Ireland's first points in the Irish half.
Ireland finally got some momentum going, and in methodical fashion worked through a hard-bitten American defense into their 22. Twice they came close to scoring in the corner, but were foiled by some desperate American cover and a couple of mistakes.
Another mistake gave the Eagles a penalty to lift their lines, and then a box kick right in front of the Irish 22 was muffed, and the Americans suddenly were on the attack.
This time, though, their lineout let them down. A long throw was loose and booted downfield by Ireland. James Paterson gathered the ball, but the Irish were there in numbers and won the ruck. Only a pass to no one saved the Americans, as Murray spun the ball right into touch.
Ireland got a free kick for a balk on that lineout, and once again the American defense was not only organized, but extremely physical. Ireland could not really get anywhere.
Finally, though the hammer fell.
The Eagles lost a scrum in their own half and Ireland thrust through. They took several phases to do it, but they had the momentum; Tommy Bowe raced into midfield to go under the posts. It was a cruel blow for the Eagles, who had played better than 10-0 behind, but that's what the halftime score was.
The Eagles had known they needed to hold their set pieces and make their tackles. One lost lineout and two lost scrums hurt them immensely; so did nine missed tackles, although when you're making 65 in 40 minutes, you're bound to miss a few.
The second half started with the USA showing a little razzle-dazzle. A loop move from the
lineout started promisingly, but ended in a knock-on. That led to a penalty in the scrum, and just like that Sexton was lining up another kick; fortunately for the USA, he pulled it left.
Moments later, it was the same situation. A penalty in front of the posts, and Sexton missing again.
The strain of constant defense was starting to show. Nic Johnson, Todd Clever, Phil Thiel and Hayden Smith were all slow to get up during a torrid defensive stand in the early part of the half. None was down for long.
The Eagles got their first promising scoring opportunity ten minutes into the second half. Blaine Scully did well to field a high ball and cut through the line. Ireland was penalized and the Eagles took a lineout in the Irish 22. The Americans thundered into the green line, running a series of painfully slow, brutal pick-and-jams that inched them five meters closer, and earned them a penalty in front of the posts. Despite crowd calls for a run at it, reason prevailed and Paterson whacked it over for the USA's first points of the tournament.
10-3 Ireland at 54 minutes.
Ireland came right back. The Eagles didn't control the kickoff well, and while they won the ruck, Andrew Suniula was forced to play scrumhalf, and his box kick didn't get far. Ireland won their lineout, mauled, and sent hooker Rory Best around the side. Clever had Best in his grasp but couldn't pull the big hooker into touch, and he was in at the corner. 15-3 Ireland led.
The Eagles were then forced to make a change, as Roland Suniula was taken off with a leg injury. Nese Malifa came on just in time to see Ireland execute a brilliant backline move. Bowe was the beneficiary, but it was smooth passing all the way and an unselfish feed from
Brian O'Driscoll to create the try. Ronan O'Gara, who had come on to raucous cheers at 50 minutes, hit the touchline conversion to make it 22-3.
With 15 minutes to go the USA started putting in a few subs. Pinned in their own half they instilled some energy, but the Eagles still needed the ball. Their best chances were from scrums, but they just couldn't keep the platform steady enough for reliable possession.
Mate Moeakiola made an immediate impact, forcing a turnover in a maul by tying up the ball, and then forcing a penalty for holding on soon thereafter. Still, as brave and committed as the Eagles were, they didn't look like scoring.
And when Andrew Suniula couldn't handle a Malifa pass that was behind him, a prime opportunity late turned into a scrum center for the Irish. Ireland shoved the scrum ten meters and got the inevitable penalty, which they used to set up a lineout 12 meters from the USA line. Another catch-and-maul, and then another penalty, which ultimately led to a heated discussion and not a little shoving among the players.
Eight meters from the USA line, Ireland called for a scrum, and the American forwards huddled to psyche themselves for the defense.
Referee Joubert immediately called a penalty on Moeakiola, and Ireland called for the scrum again. Somehow, the USA escaped. The ball bounced the wrong way in the tunnel and came out the USA end. Todd Clever raced upfield and the Eagles were spared.
As time wound down, Ireland had one more shot, but instead America's most opportunistic player produced a special moment. Paul Emerick stepped in front of a Gordon D'Arcy pass and was gone 50 meters under the posts.
He slid in to score, popped to his feet, and saluted the cheering crowd.
Nese Malifa's conversion ended the game.
Ireland had many chances to score more points, but the USA did not give up on any play. The Eagles try might have been against the run of play, but it was just reward for an evening of brave defense.
Tries: Bowe 2, Best
Convs: Sexton, O'Gara