SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The Men’s Eagles put an end to a winless streak against Canada with a thrilling, 38-35 victory in front of a sold-out crowd at Bonney Field Saturday.
The afternoon kickoff forced the referee to stop play during each half for water breaks, but both teams ensured the fans would get a full match of rugby and then some.
The Eagles dominated possession in the first 10 minutes of the match and turned it into points when Canada was penalized for offside in the fourth minute. Chris Wyles, who accounted for nine points in the Eagles’ loss to Japan last weekend in Carson, kicked the penalty goal.
Phil Mack was shown a yellow card in the 10th minute to knock Canada down to 14 players and Wyles’ left boot struck again to extend the Eagles’ lead to 6-0.
Brett Thompson, making his test debut for the Eagles after spending a couple of seasons with the Men’s Eagles Sevens program, got his first taste of the game in the 19th minute with a pass from Wyles.
Mack returned to the pitch in the 20th minute and made an impact to set up a teammate down the touch line for a big gain. Thompson beat three Canadians to the in-goal to see the ball out before the opponents could get to it.
Canada’s sustained pressure over the course of a few minutes resulted in its first try. Mack took the ball from the ruck about 10 meters from the Eagles’ try line and sent a quick pass to the wing for Harry Jones, who dotted down for five points. James Pritchard kicked the conversion to undo the early work by the Eagles and put Canada ahead, 7-6.
Todd Clever broke through multiple tackles in the 26th minute to set up the Eagles’ attack on Canada’s side of the pitch. A few phases later, Shalom Suniula sent a wide pass to Wyles for a break before a pass to Blaine Scully. As the winger’s hometown crowd cheered, Scully passed the ball back to Wyles, who managed to get within a meter of the try line before being tackled. With his head up, Wyles found an onrushing Scully, who dove over to give the Eagles an 11-7 lead.
Pritchard missed his only penalty kick attempt of the match in the 30th minute after an offside call against the Eagles. Danny Barrett found space between a few Canadians after the Eagles won a scrum in their own half and could only be stopped at Canada’s 22. The attack continued and finished with Wyles in the corner of the try zone. He converted his own try to extend the lead to 18-7, the largest Eagles’ lead since the victory against Uruguay in March.
With five minutes remaining in the first half, the Eagles were playing strongly and smart, which countered Canada’s ill-disciplined play throughout the opening 40 minutes. Aaron Carpenter put a dent into the Eagles’ lead, however, after a few crash-ball phases on the home team’s doorstep. Pritchard converted to bring Canada closer at 18-14.
Canada overtook the Eagles after a nifty chip kick behind the defense was latched onto by Pritchard in the try zone. His conversion put Canada ahead by three at 21-18.
The Eagles won the ensuing restart and looked to hold possession until the first-half whistle, but the referee offered little respite and Ciaran Hearn ran 60 meters for Canada’s fourth try of the half. Pritchard’s conversion sent the rivals into the locker rooms with Canada in the lead, 28-18.
“We were disappointed in ourselves,” Head Coach Mike Tolkin said of the atmosphere in the locker room at halftime. “We let them back into the game.”
The second half did not start much better for the Eagles. Barrett dropped a pass inside Canada’s 22 in the 42nd minute, giving Jones a free pick-up and lane to the try zone. Pritchard converted Canada’s fifth try for a 35-18 lead.
The local crowd grew restless as they witnessed the bitter rival overturn an 11-point deficit in a matter of game-time minutes. The Eagles, however, continued the trend of refusing to give up in a match.
In the 45th minute, Canada took another penalty and the Eagles decided three points was not enough to get back into the match. Wyles kicked to touch, but Canada managed to regain possession and turn play the other way before a penalty for obstruction was called.
Jebb Sinclair, whose ban for receiving a red card against Scotland last weekend was rescinded during the week, was shown a yellow card in the 52nd minute to give the Eagles another man-advantage.
Wyles kicked the three points to bring the Eagles within two converted tries at 35-21 and the Eagles kept up the momentum with big runs from Clever and Mike Petri. The Eagles spent nearly two minutes trying to get over the try line and tired the Canadian defense enough to find space on the wing. In the 59th minute, Petri’s quick pass to Scully gave the Sacramento native his second try of the match. Wyles’ conversion made the score 35-28.
Wyles kicked another penalty in the 67th minute to cut the deficit to four points. On the restart, Tom Coolican chased down and blocked a clearance kick deep in Canada’s half. He chased after the ball and was supported by Barrett and the rest of the energized Eagles, who played a few smart passes to the wing to give Thompson a debut try. Wyles’ conversion put the Eagles ahead, 38-35, with 10 minutes remaining in the match.
The Eagles either kept possession or kept Canada within its own half for the majority of the final 10 minutes, but Nathan Hirayama’s run past the Eagles’ 22 gave Canada a lifeline. Petri dragged the sevens star down to keep Canada out of the try zone, but the field position was a boost to the Canadian attack.
Scott LaValla was sent to the sin bin with almost no time remaining and Canada was in perfect position to notch the scoreline with a three-point penalty kick, but the rival went for the win. The Eagles stood firm, however, and even kept ahold of the lead when Canada was given a second opportunity to go for points. Canada declined the option, opting to either win or lose the match than reward the fans watching around the world with a draw.
The Eagles stopped Canada at each attack and were elated when the referee blew the full-time whistle, signaling the end of the team’s two-match losing streak and seven-match losing streak to a bitter rival.
Neither Canada nor the Eagles were in contention to win the IRB Pacific Nations Cup Pacific/Asia conference, but the Eagles take second place with the win. Tolkin and his staff will now look forward to the Americas Rugby Championship in the fall and the historic matchup with the New Zealand All Blacks at Soldier Field in Chicago Nov. 1.
Men's Eagles | v Canada
1. Nick Wallace
2. Phil Thiel
3. Olive Kilifi
4. Samu Manoa
5. Hayden Smith
6. Todd Clever (C)
7. Scott LaValla
8. Danny Barrett
9. Mike Petri
10. Shalom Suniula
11. Brett Thompson
12. Thretton Palamo
13. Seamus Kelly
14. Blaine Scully
15. Chris Wyles
Canada | Starting XV
1. Andrew Tiedemann
2. Aaron Carpenter
3. Jake Ilnicki
4. Jamie Cudmore
5. Tyler Hotson
6. Jebb Sinclair
7. John Moonlight
8. Tyler Ardron
9. Phil Mack
10. Harry Jones
11. DTH Van der Merwe
12. Connor Braid
13. Ciaran Hearn
14. Jeff Hassler
15. James Pritchard
Canada | Reserves
16. Hubert Buydens
17. Ray Barkwill
18. Jason Marshall
19. Jon Phelan
20. Kyle Gilmour
21. Gordon McRorie
22. Nathan Hirayama
23. Nick Blevins
Men's Eagles | 38
Tries: Scully (2), Wyles, Thompson
Penalties: Wyles (4)
Canada | 35
Tries: Jones (2), Carpenter, Pritchard, Hearn
Conversions: Pritchard (5)