The failure to scrum successfully and some breakdowns in defense saw the USA lose 38-20 to Japan in the final match of the Pacific Nations Cup.
The Eagles looked dangerous on offense, but they dropped far, far too many balls, and their scrum just wasn’t up to it, destroying any momentum the USA might have had and leading to a disastrous opening to the second half.
The Eagles signaled a desire to work the ball early when they turned over the ball in a ruck and quickly countered. Eric Fry did very well to find James Paterson on a pass inside and the former USA U19 captain weaved his way well into the Japan half. The Eagles ran phases and made the gain line twice, but a flat ball to Chris Biller bounced off his shoulder.
Scrums looked to be a massive battle early on and the USA were penalized – after two resets – in their first scrum.
That set up an attacking lineout for Japan and after some quick recycling they sent the ball through the hands to Kenki Fukuoka who ran in untouched in the corner. Ayumu Goromaru whacked over the touchyline conversion and the USA were behind 7-0 after seven minutes.
The Eagles get a penalty soon thereafter, a Japanese player was needlessly slowing ball in the ruck, and the Eagles opted to kick for a lineout. They won the lineout, but Japan’s maul defense was outstanding and the Cherry Blossoms shoved the USA pack into touch.
The Eagles got another chance thanks to some physical defense. Facing an odd-man rush, Adam Siddall thumped his opposite backwards and the USA forwards swarmed in to force a penalty. The Eagles kept up the pressure from that, recycling well but not breaking the Japan line. They did get another penalty, but eventually lost the ball in the Japanese 22. In response, the Japanese quick-recycle attack asked all sorts of questions of the Americans.
And they answered. A tackle from Chris Biller forced a turnover and after a nifty run from Andrew Suniula, they sent hands out to wing Luke Hume. Hume had flanker Scott LaValla on his outside and passed. Lavalla, now meters from the line, sent a sort of sky-hook pass inside to Chris Wyles, who gleefully ran in the try. Wyles converted it, and the USA tied it up 7-7 at 17 minutes.
A little more than three minutes later it was another try for the Eagles. This try was constructed with immense patience, as they showed their pattern throughout. It all started from a scrum in their own half. Mike Petri spotted a gap to get the USA started. Then they recycled well, ran a well-worked series of phases that hit players coming from depth, used decoy runners intelligently, and almost broke free a couple of times. Paterson, Hume and Wyles all had runs, but the keys were likely Petri, who was very quick to get the ball out quickly, and LaValla, who stepped in as halfback when Petri was under a pile.
In the end, Hume came very close, set the ruck, and then Lou Stanfill sent a pass out to Eric Fry, who bulled and wriggled his way over the line. 12-7 USA led.
Japan answered right back, pressuring the USA instantly and bouncing off tackles, as well. Working on a penalty advantage, Japan had a free play and sent it wide to outside center Male Sau, who was hit by Siddall, Peter Dahl, and Wyles, but wouldn’t go down and stretched over the line in the corner. The kick from Goromaro was wide, however, leaving the score tied 12-12 at 26 minutes.
Both teams really wanted to play rugby, and it made for an entertaining game, and a tiring one. The ball remained in play for several minutes at a time – very rare in international rugby. Right around the half-hour Japan was penalized for diving on the ball in the ruck after a promising period of play by the Eagles. Wyles set up a 32-meter attempt, and put it majestically through the posts for a 15-12 USA lead.
It looked like it might be more after that as Japan was pinged for being offside on a knock-on. Hume tapped quickly and after a phase Suniula was almost through. He had Stanfill in support but Suniula’s one-handed pass attempt didn’t work and he lost the ball forward.
The Eagle defense continued to improve as they responded to Japan’s quick-recycle game, and as a result Japan started to kick more. That actually helped them around the 35th minute, as Luke Hume tried to be a little too cute and needed Wyles and several others to rescue the situation.
Japan then got a scrum on an extremely dubious forward-pass call. That call was an important one. Japan worked it quickly into the 22 before flanker Hendrik Tui picked and ran up the middle for a key Japan try. Goromaru’s kick was an easy one and Japan took the lead 19-15 at 38 minutes.
It was almost 26-15 after scrumhalf Fumiaki Tanaka used the referee as a shield and was away. But a terrific, try-saving tackle by Wyles on lock Shoji Ito jarred the ball loose to end the half.
The teams went into the locker room with the USA perhaps encouraged in how good they looked on offense, but also conscious that their ball-handling let them down at critical moments.
The Eagles started the second half on the front foot, but indecision undid them as they were called for taking too long to use the ball at the back of the ruck. The call was just punishment for what the USA has struggled with this spring, as they have not bought into the need for quick ball. The turnover proved very costly, as Japan then got a penalty, took the lineout, and sent the ball wide from first phase. Siddall and Blaine Scully (now on for Paterson) got bunched up and wing and captain Toshiaki Hirose was in for the try and the 24-15 lead.
Now with their tails up Japan pressed on. Tanaka wriggled out of a tackle and was away. He kicked on and Wyles bobbled the ball, suddenly giving Japan a scrum ten meters out. That mistake sucked any opportunity for momentum for the USA.
The Eagles were pinged for a penalty on that scrum – they wheeled it but the binding was adjudged to be off. Another scrum, and another penalty. All of the talk was to the USA from referee Greg Garner, despite the fact that in the first pack-down, Japan’s props didn’t engage.
From this next scrum, No. 8 Takashi Kikutani of Japan clearly knocked the ball on, but Garner gave a scrum to Japan again. And in that next scrum, Fry was called for collapsing, just as Shawn Pittman screamed for a call on his side. Fry got a yellow card, meaning on the next scrum Nick Wallace had to come in for Peter Dahl. The entire episode, which took close to ten minutes, destroyed the game as a spectacle, but also played into Japan’s hand.
Japan, now knowing that anything they did would result in a penalty against the USA, had free rein to do whatever they wanted.
The inevitable happened, the USA scrum disintegrated, and Garner called a penalty try for players leaving their binding. Conversion good, and 31-15.
You could see the frustration emanating within the USA team after that. Pressing to get some points back they fumbled possession, and the scrum problems continued.
In the end, after a long period of time stuck in their own 22, the USA gave up another try. After a couple of phases, Tanaka, the smallest player on the field, saw a mismatch and scampered over to score. The kick was good and suddenly it was 38-15 with 17 to go.
The Eagles, though, just couldn’t get out of their own way. They couldn’t win the restart, and even when they got the ball back, it was one nice run from Wyles, one phase, and a turnover in the tackle by Cam Dolan.
Eventually, the Eagles got the ball for more than a few seconds. Some good plays from Siddall and from Suniula set up Hume. The wing grubbered ahead, the ball bounced off his head, but that’s not a knock-on, and he gathered it and danced into in-goal for the try. 38-20 with 11 to go.
But that was it. Fittingly, the game ended on a USA knock-on even as, to their credit, the Eagles kept playing rugby. There were some bright spots – Siddall played very well at outside center, Luke Hume had perhaps his best and most consistent game at wing, and in his 50th test match, Todd Clever was immense. But for a team that struggled to keep its scrum together, dropping balls is a crime, and the USA were guilty.
“We felt pretty good going into halftime,” said Clever after the match. “Japan’s on their game; they’re playing some great rugby, but we let them off the hook a little bit. We are a bit disappointed with our results but we have two important games coming up in our World Cup Qualifiers against Canada and we’re looking forward to that.”
The USA looked quite good for about 35 minutes, and didn't look half bad in the final ten minutes. But in between, they were a mess, and gave up 26 points in those 35 minutes.
Tries: Wyles, Fry, Hume
Tries: Fukuoka, Mau, Tui, Hirose Penalty, Tanaka
Convs: Goromaru 4