“Composure” has been a key word for the USA at the U20 Nations Cup. During the Women Junior All Americans’ first game, Canada took advantage of a couple of lapses in concentration and pulled away in the second half. In game two, the Americans weathered a “spirited” South African side that indulged in a disruptive, scrappy game, but pulled off a big, unified win. Yesterday’s game against England fell somewhere in between those two performances, as the USA won the first half decidedly, 19-0, but was outscored 17-8 in the second stanza.
With that said, the 27-17 victory was a momentous one. The WJAAs not only booked their spot in the championship against Canada this Sunday, but also celebrated the program’s first-ever win over the England U20s.
That berth to the title bout did not come without a fight, both physically and mentally. Several reports of England's un-sportsman-like behavior surfaced - perhaps the hosts were frustrated by their unprecedented winless record heading into yesterday's game; perhaps the referee's interpretation of the contact area stressed both sides. Whatever the case, that tension played out in the breakdowns, which were a reliable source of sin bins, penalties and points, and tussles. The USA had anticipated as much and adjusted their game plan accordingly.
“We looked at a lot of their video footage from past games, and we saw certain areas that we could attack in the backline,” USA WJAA flyhalf Anne Peterson said. “We were trying not to attack around the rucks, because they put a lot of forwards in there. We looked to attack a little bit wider with our forwards and backs, and I think, using that, we did really well.”
Peterson indicated that the team’s greatest challenge was matching players in the ruck and not over-committing, while still building a sound defensive wall. The USA got the job done in the first half, relying on a dominant pack to set up all three tries: No. 8 Jordan Gray from a lineout, lock Chi Chi Chukwueke (who was unfortunately injured and subbed out after her score 11 minutes in), and wing Natalie Kosko who finished off a forward-produced turnover inside the 22 meter. Peterson added two conversions for the 19-0 lead, but just before half, flanker Kelsey Harris was sin-binned for not rolling away, and the USA would start the second half a man down.
“We were really composed and played our game plan, especially in the beginning of the game,” Peterson remained positive. “And it paid off: We were able to take a lead early. There were parts of the game where we broke down a little bit but we were able to come back together.
“Everyone was getting in trouble around the rucks,” Peterson added. “We weren’t rolling away from tackles, but we just need to understand what the referee is calling and change our play accordingly.”
With the man-advantage, England got the opportunity to strike after a free kick. Holly Molesworth slipped past the defense and dotted down for the try, 19-5.
The USA responded splendidly, with Meya Bizer making good on a penalty and then the pack overpowering an English scrum for Gray’s second try, 27-5. This is perhaps when the Americans’ focus blurred slightly. Although there were 22 points between the teams, the English continued the battle and found success around the edges, sending Chelsey Fuggle and Sophie Lee into the try zone. Flo Williams’ conversion made it 27-17, but the Americans’ first-half flurry proved good enough for the win.
“We were really disappointed to be 19 points down at halftime but we came back into it in the second half and scored three good tries,” England U20 coach Amanda Bennett told England RFU. “It was pleasing to win the second half 17-8 but obviously that wasn’t quite enough. The message before the game was that we were ‘going into battle’, and that’s how it proved. USA are a strong side – they’re fit and athletic, and their sevens skills really shone through.”
“We did a really good job of keeping our cool, sticking to our game plan and tried not to stoop down to their level of play,” Peterson said, reflecting on an instance when teammates had to separate her from an inciting English player. “We did a really good job of playing the game the way we wanted to play it.”
It’s safe to say that the USA team that played yesterday is better than the one that lost to Canada 25-15 more than a week ago. We’ll be able to gauge whether those changes, relative to Canada (who won 37-0 against South Africa yesterday), will be enough to overcome their North American rivals on Sunday.
“Our first game against Canada, that was our first time playing together as a group, and since then we’ve built so much,” Peterson confirmed. “Everyone’s getting comfortable with our game plan, how we play. We’re really excited to play again Canada now that we have a few more games with each other, to see what we can do. Staying composed through the whole game is our goal against Canada.”
Tries: Gray 2, Chukwueke, Kosko
Conversions: Peterson 2
Tries: Molesworth, Fuggle, Lee