Tonga defeated the USA 18-9 in the Pacific Nations Cup match at the Home Depot Center (being renamed the Stub Hub Center) in Carson, Calif. Friday night.
It was not the USA’s best night, and they will leave for Japan and the remaining PNC games knowing they could do so, so much better.
The USA might have been at a home match, but it didn’t always sound like it as the Tonga Sipi Tau was greeted with thunderous applause from the Tonga supporters in attendance.
Both teams were certainly fired up, and it was a case of who could harness their adrenaline better.
Tonga were penalized twice in the early going, the second time was right outside the 22 and in front of the posts, just fine for a Chris Wyles shot at goal.
No problem for the Saracens fullback, and the USA led 3-0 after four minutes.
What was good for the goose was good for the Sea Eagle, as Tonga immediately thundered into the USA line, forced an offside call and Viliami Hakalo did the job for Tonga. 3-3.
Tonga nearly made it 8-3 when flanker and captain Nili Latu burst through a gap in between flyhalf and the ruck. He wasn’t quite fast enough to go all the way, and Chris Wyles made a superb tackle to stop him. The Eagle defense scrambled, and after Andrew Suniula and Wyles made other key stops, Tonga got another penalty. This time, they opted for a scrum, and that was a mistake, as the Sea Eagles were called for an early engagement. Pressure lifted.
But Tonga kept doing what the USA was failing to do, keep possession, and while they weren’t fancy, they kept asking questions of the Eagle tacklers. That produced a penalty, and after a prolonged series of pick and jams, Tonga sent it wide and center Sione Piukala scampered past Todd Clever to go in under the posts. Hakalo easily took the extras and it was 10-3 Tonga after 16 minutes.
It was easy to see, though, how Tonga was dominating possession. Even when they knocked on, so did the USA, and in the breakdowns it seemed anything went. Well, not everything, as a blatant bit of handling on the ground did earn Wyles another shot at goal and he had no problem making the score 10-6.
With 18 minutes to go in the first half, the Eagles got a much-needed emotional boost when they were able to demolish a Tongan scrum. Captain Todd Clever enthusiastically applauded his pack-mates. The Eagles didn’t score from the ensuing penalty, but they learned that they might have some ascendancy there.
That helped the Eagles pin Tonga in their 22 and then half-breaks by Lou Stanfill and Suniula appeared to set up the USA for a chance. But Toby L’Estrange’s grubber into in-goal was ill-advised, and no American was close to it. Ten minutes left and still 10-6.
Back the USA came, with Todd Clever casting aside tacklers. He offloaded, and while Tonga stopped the surge, they did it with a very high tackle from Latu. Latu got a yellow card, and as the recipient of his attentions, Brian Doyle, tried to put his head back on straight, Latu had to think himself fortunate he wasn’t seeing red.
Wyles slotted the penalty and that made it 10-9.
The crowd got a treat later on as Taku Ngwenya got a pass from Wyles with some space. He scampered across the field and turned on the gas, but his pass to Scott LaValla in support was five feet over the 6-5 flanker’s head.
Little mistakes plagued both teams as they bashed into each other. Tonga kept muffing their lineouts, and the USA found themselves dropping the ball at critical moments.
And that’s how the half ended. Tonga scrumhalf Thomas Palu, slotting in at flyhalf, cut through on a flat pass. But it wasn’t a flat pass, it was forward. No try for Tonga, but instead a slim one-point lead.
The second half started with the USA clearly wanting to play in the Tonga half of the field. But Tonga can kick a little, too, and once they got the ball in midfield they were once again able to force the Eagles to make tackles.
That they did, and eventually they got a turnover. An Eagle rucked over the ball and Eric Fry nabbed it. Looking to make something happen he looked for a pass in traffic, and found … Piukala. The center turned on the gas, got past Wyles, and was in for his second try. 15-9 Tonga.
Frantic to get back into the game, and to score a try, something that remined elusive, the United States kept pressing. As a result, they kept losing the ball. LaValla let one go off his fingertips. Fry and Shawn Pittman fumbled a strip in contact. Combined with the Eagles’ propensity for kicking straight to Hakalo at fullback, they were digging themselves a hole.
The shovels came out once more as a penalty on an attacking scrum put the Eagles back in their half, and two dropped balls and a penalty saw them facing another shot at goal, and flanker Latu just got the ball over to make it 18-9.
Time was running out on the USA. They won the restart and started off again, but fell victim, once again, to a silly error. This time, they got a penalty, Ngwenya tried to tap quickly, and knocked the ball on. Even their lineout failed them. After Wyles gained 50 meters on a kick to touch on a penalty, the throw and lift of the Eagles both missed the mark, and Tonga got the ball back.
The game frittered away thus. The Eagles had their stalwarts – Brian Doyle was heroic all day – but they just couldn’t get out of their own way, and they certainly couldn’t close the deal on any try-scoring opportunities. The game ended with the USA attacking, and knocking the ball on.
Tonga won because they played better almost the entire evening; after the high of Romania in November, and the potential of Ireland June 8, the United States put in a poor performance when they really, really needed a good one.
Pens: Wyles 3
Tries: Piukala 2
Pens: Hakalo, Latu
1. Shawn Pittman
2. Chris Biller
3. Eric Fry
4. Brian Doyle
5. Louis Stanfill
6. Scott LaValla
7. Peter Dahl
8. Todd Clever (C)
9. Mike Petri
10. Toby L'Estrange
11. James Paterson
12. Andrew Suniula
13. Seamus Kelly
14. Takudzwa Ngwenya
15. Chris Wyles
16. Zach Fenoglio (for Bill at 65)
17. Nick Wallace (for Fry at 60)
18. Phil Thiel
19. Graham Harriman
20. John Quill (for Dahl at 55)
21. Robbie Shaw (for Petri at 55)
22. Adam Siddall (for L’Estrange at 70)
23. Blaine Scully