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HOUSTON, Texas – It was a bruising 80 minutes, but the Men’s Eagles ultimately fell to Ireland 12-15 in front of a record crowd of 20,181 at BBVA Compass Stadium Saturday.
"We're disappointed," Head Coach Mike Tolkin said. "It was right within winning distance."
The loss marks the second in two weeks for the Eagles, who opened their IRB Pacific Nations Cup campaign with a defeat to Canada in Edmonton May 25. While the rainy conditions were nowhere to be found in Houston, the Eagles found it just as tough to get into the try zone.
The Eagles received the ball from the opening kickoff and kept it for the first five minutes, passing smartly and staying in support. Ireland managed to force an Eagles knock and was awarded the put-in to a scrum in the fifth minute, and a series of scrums eventually resulted in a penalty to Ireland. Ian Madigan stepped up to take a ninth-minute penalty kick and put Ireland on the board.
Brian Doyle needed some tending to after a ruck in the 13th minute, but Samu Manoa took revenge and got the crowd on its feet when he lined up an Ireland ball-carrier with a huge hit one minute later. The physicality of the Eagles turned into penalty trouble once again in the 18th minute with hands in the ruck and Madigan took full advantage with another penalty to give Ireland a 6-0 lead.
"Early on we got into some penalty trouble," Tolkin said. "Obviously, a couple we'll take responsibility for."
Takudzwa Ngwenya used his pace from the restart to break through for field position, but pressure from the Ireland wing forced his pass a bit high for Chris Wyles to handle, ending the opportunity.
The Eagles did not give up a genuine chance for Ireland in terms of scoring from open play, as solid tackling and positioning benefited the home side with Ireland struggling to cope. A water break in the 20th minute helped both teams and it was the Eagles who got the next opportunity to score.
Luke Hume received the ball on the wing near Ireland’s 10 and sent a grubber kick nearly 15 meters behind the defense. Using the speed and agility he has shown with the Men’s Eagles Sevens this year, Hume beat his opposite number to the ball and juked an oncoming defender to set up great field position for the Eagles. Though they could not find the try zone from ten meters out, sustained pressure on a tiring Irish defense drew a penalty. Wyles kicked his first of the night to cut the deficit to 6-3 and the Eagles regained Doyle during the break.
Madigan kicked his third penalty of the night in the 31st minute, springing Manoa into action. The Northampton Saint used his big frame and speed to get through a few tackles at midfield to get the Eagles into attacking territory and drew another penalty. Wyles kicked for points into a raucous crowd behind the sticks and the Eagles found themselves down by three once again at 9-6.
Ireland’s chances were few, but a kick across the field in the 35th minute stretched the Eagles defense. Reminiscent of an opportunity he had earlier in the match, Ngwenya stepped up to take away the scoring chance and forced Ireland to knock on. The Eagles committed one last penalty before the halftime whistle and paid the price, as Madigan kicked his fourth penalty of the half for a 12-6 lead.
Just as the Eagles were hurting themselves by taking penalties in the first half, Ireland shot themselves in the foot in the 50th minute with a poor pass. A long lineout fell to the visitors and they were home free down the touchline in numbers with only two Eagles to defend, but a long pass was mishandled.
Ireland eventually got the ball back in the 52nd minute and were in the middle of their first phase when captain Todd Clever was judged to have made a high tackle and was sent to the sin bin. Not only were the Eagles now down a player against the ninth-ranked Irish, but the penalty allowed Madigan to kick yet another penalty and extend their lead to 15-6.
James Paterson, who kicked a penalty against Ireland at the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, replaced Hume on the wing in the 58th minute as Wyles added his third penalty from 43 meters.
Ireland tried a grubber kick of their own in the 63rd minute, but Manoa put a quick end to it and sent a chip kick down the field for Barbarian teammate Ngwenya to chase. He got there to force another Ireland knock and the Eagles were awarded the ball after the advantage awarded by the referee. The solid defense and smart play of Manoa took important time off of the clock and Clever returned to the fray just in time.
Two minutes later, sustained pressure in the Irish half drew another Wyles penalty kick opportunity, which he slotted for a 15-12 scoreline. Ireland was penalized for delaying in a lineout a few minutes later but were awarded another penalty with a few minutes remaining in the match. Madigan stepped up for what seemed like an easy sixth penalty kick, but the opportunity from the 22 missed just wide.
It felt like we could have won that one," Ngwenya said. "It felt like we gave them too much respect. At the end it came to bite us in the butts. We could have had that game.
"Now we just have to get that confidence and keep going forward and be a little more expansive."
"It was a great game," Wyles said. "I have to say thanks to the crowd, 20,000 fans on home soil. It was a great atmosphere and I wish we would have come away with that victory. It was close, but we need to create a winning atmosphere amongst the squad - and we're getting there.
"Some positive signs, but I don't like saying that because we're here to win games. We want to win in front of our home crowd. We're not here just to compete, we're here to win."
After the match, the Eagles took a lap around the field to thank the crowd for a record turnout and their support. The Eagles will hope for their first victory of the 2013 season next Friday, June 14, at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., as Tonga visits for the second Pacific Nations Cup match.
Men's Eagles | vs. Ireland
1. Shawn Pittman
2. Chris Biller
3. Eric Fry
4. Brian Doyle
5. Louis Stanfill
6. Samu Manoa
7. Scott LaValla
8. Todd Clever (C)
9. Mike Petri
10. Toby L'Estrange
11. Takudzwa Ngwenya
12. Andrew Suniula
13. Seamus Kelly
14. Luke Hume (Paterson @ 58)
15. Chris Wyles
Men's Eagles | 12
Penalties: Wyles (4)
Ireland | 15
Penalties: Madigan (5)