PHILADELPHIA, Penn. – The Men’s Eagles captivated a sold-out crowd of 18,500 people at PPL Park Saturday night with a hard-fought 19-29 loss to the visiting New Zealand Maori All Blacks.
Energized from the fans’ response to the Maori All Blacks’ Haka with chants of “USA,” the Eagles kept the All Blacks on their own side of the field in the opening minutes. In the sixth minute, the Eagles committed a penalty, giving the All Blacks a lineout with good field position following a kick to touch. Jamison Gibson-Park received the ball from a maul and juked the last defender to open the scoring. Robbie Robinson converted for the 7-0 lead.
The Eagles settled down following the try but still fell into penalty trouble. Mike Petri fed Andrew Suniula for a good run in the middle of the field before another penalty. After kicking into touch again, Eagles captain Todd Clever stole the All Blacks’ lineout and, a few phases later, drew a penalty. Fullback Adam Siddall stepped up for a 25-meter kick and sent it through the posts to diminish the deficit by three.
The Maori All Blacks showed why they should not be mistaken as a New Zealand “B side,” breaking through the gain line well and keeping possession in contact. The speed of the visitors was combated by the Eagles’ size and determination, which was rewarded just after the midpoint of the first half.
Peter Dahl caught an All Black in the middle of receiving a pass and kicked the ball from him, then chased it down with support. The Eagles drew another penalty in the ruck and Siddall kicked his second penalty goal of the night to make the score 6-7.
Following the restart, the Maori All Blacks made their way down the field and were almost tackled into touch. A misplaced pass hit a retreating Cameron Dolan in the leg and the Eagles recovered. A minute later, a box kick intended for Luke Hume on the wing at midfield was caught by an All Black, but he was tracked down by Hume and Dolan. Dolan turned the ball over and ran half of the field before being tackled two meters from the try line.
The Eagles regained possession within 10 meters again as Nick Wallace showed his mobility with a sneaky run from a ruck at the 22 to put the Eagles within scoring range. Joe Wheeler was sent to the sin bin, giving the Eagles a man-up advantage for the final 10 minutes of the half.
The All Blacks won their own lineout and cleared it, but Siddall caught the ball and gained ground with a nifty run between defenders. After another phase, he received the ball again and broke another two tackled and set up a scrum for the Eagles. The Maori All Blacks committed a subsequent penalty and Siddall gave the Eagles a 9-7 lead with a successful kick.
Seamus Kelly brought an All Black down into touch and took a quick lineout to catch the All Blacks off guard. The ball went wide to Hume, who grubbered the ball into a defender and tackled him into touch.
The halftime whistle came too soon for the Eagles, who were wearing down the visitors with the passion a sold out crowd can only expect from an American national team.
The Eagles relinquished the lead in the 44th minute after Maori All Blacks captain Tim Bateman received a pass off of the switch and caught two Eagles on the wrong foot for a try between the sticks. Robinson made his second conversion to put the All Blacks back in front 14-9.
Dolan thought he had a response a minute later after the All Blacks turned the ball over but the referee had blown the play dead. Toby L’Estrange was replaced by Zach Pangelinan due to injury, while Kyle Sumsion replaced Clever as a blood sub.
Not a minute later, Sumsion – in his first appearance for the Eagles – attempted a tackle on a speeding All Black and took an arm to the face, causing him to go to the ground. The time it took for the medical staff to make sure he was okay allowed a head-wrapped Clever to re-enter the match.
The Maori All Blacks began to chip away at the Eagles with multiple phases not far from the try line, but hard work from players like Hume and Nick Wallace kept them from scoring. The All Blacks ended up committing a penalty with possession and the Eagles cleared.
In the 56th minute, Bateman scored his second of the match. The Eagles cleared a dangerous possession and the All Blacks decided to keep the ball. They were rewarded by moving the ball wide and setting up Bateman to break through once again. Robinson kicked his conversion just wide to keep the Eagles within two scoring plays.
Following the try, it was the Eagles’ turn to knock on the door. Multiple rucks were stuffed by the defenders, but another penalty gave the Eagles options. Clever opted for points and Siddall nailed a tough-angled kick for a 12-19 score line. Robinson kicked the All Blacks’ first penalty goal in the 69th minute to extend their lead to 22-12.
In the 73rd minute, a stingy Eagles defense forced a turnover and – after being stuffed several more times on the wrong side of the try line – Dolan finished the play by dotting down to put the Eagles within three at 19-22.
The All Blacks caught the restart but were hit hard by a resurgent Eagle. With plenty of time remaining, the Eagles went to work and moved down the field. Despite multiple downed players, the home team did not stop until a misguided pass fell into the hands of an All Black.
With just four minutes remaining and the threat of their first loss in years a possibility, the All Blacks sealed their win through Luke Katene after an Eagles turnover.
The Eagles were one possession away from snatching victory from the Maori All Blacks, and the players’ effort cannot be underscored.
“We gave it our all for 80 minutes and we came up short,” Man of the Match Dolan said.
Even the New Zealand Maori All Blacks felt the game could have gone against them.
“It was a really tough win tonight,” Bateman said. “They brought what we expected. They’re strong athletes. You look at Todd after the game with his kit off and bloodied; he was really indicative of the way they played. They put everything into it.”
The city of Philadelphia impressed both sides with its hospitality and ability to host sporting events, with the Maori All Blacks having witnessed a 76ers game the week leading up to the match.
“[Philadelphia] is just so good at entertaining,” New Zealand Maori All Blacks Head Coach Colin Cooper said. “I’ve been all over the world and the USA’s ability to entertain and get people packed in is outstanding. I think the USA really brought it. If we hadn’t the spirit that we had, we would have lost the game.”
“Coming here in front of a packed crowd with the chant of ‘USA’ really helped us out,” Clever said.
“Any time you get a sold-out in the United States for rugby it’s a phenomenal honor,” Dolan said.
The Eagles’ November Tour continues Saturday, Nov. 16, in Tbilisi, Georgia, against a Georgia team the Eagles defeated 36-20 last summer. Follow @USARugby on Twitter for live match updates.
Men's Eagles | v. New Zealand Maori All Blacks
1. Nick Wallace
2. Phil Thiel
3. Shawn Pittman
4. Graham Harriman
5. Tai Tuisamoa
6. Todd Clever(C)
7. Peter Dahl
8. Cameron Dolan
9. Mike Petri
10. Toby L'Estrange
11. Tim Maupin
12. Andrew Suniula
13. Seamus Kelly
14. Luke Hume
15. Adam Siddal
Men's Eagles | 19
Penalties: Siddall (4)
New Zealand Maori All Blacks | 29
Tries: Gibson-Park, Bateman (2), Katene
Conversions: Robinson (3)