PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa – The Eagles were helped into the Cup Quarterfinals at the Nelson Mandela Bay Sevens, but the USA will take it anyway they can get it after a dramatic day one of the tournament.
Wins over Canada and Zimbabwe put the USA in position to advance to the elite cup competition, but needed some help in the form of a Canadian loss to Portugal. The Portuguese delivered. The Eagles will now play South Africa in the Cup Quarterfinals.
Some positives came out of day one and head coach Alexander Magleby is pleased to be in the Cup, but he knows improvements still need to be made.
“We were a bit loose with the ball and we made it hard for ourselves, especially in the first half against Portugal. We started to wake up in the second half and then continued to play better in the last two games,” said Magleby.
The coach praised the gutsy play by a banged-up Colin Hawley and playmakers Folau Niua, Luke Hume, and Jack Halalilo. All four Eagles gave the team a spark and were instrumental in the team’s wins. Zack Test also deserves mention. He was tackling like a man possessed, showcasing his often overshadowed defensive abilities.
As for day two and the challenges that lie ahead, there is an air of excitement around the team, and the prospect of playing and upsetting some of the rugby giants is a great motivator.
“How pumped up will we be? Playing the home team in front of a great crowd in South Africa, it’s going to be very exciting,” the coach stated.
The Cup Quarterfinal kicks off at 12:39 p.m. local/5:39 a.m. EST. Follow the action live on Twitter (@usaeaglesrugby) or on the Eye on the Eaglespage.
USA vs. Portugal
Portugal dashed American hopes early in the day, defeating the Eagles 26-12. Some fundamental skills let the Eagles down with passes not going to hand and going behind players on attack. Defensively, a slow reaction time after penalties cost the USA dearly.
American infractions late in the game gave Portugal every excuse to slow the game down and effectively eat the last two minutes of clock, putting it out of reach for the Eagles. There were some positive signs though as halfback Folau Niua started to look very dangerous. He scored one of the two American tries in the game and set up the other. His excellent form carried over to the last two games of the day.
USA vs. Canada
Canada put the hurt on the USA last weekend in Dubai and the Eagles returned the favor in Port Elizabeth. However it looked like it might be more of the same early as Jeff Hassler scored a dazzling try, beating three USA defenders to open the scoring. But the Eagle response was aggressive and lethal.
Two early tries from the American sparkplug, Luke Hume, jumpstarted the win, and a red card for punching issued to Canadian playmaker Phil Mack gave the USA a man advantage for most of the game.
Spreading the field and good game management allowed the USA to close out the game. Maka Unufe cut through a depleted defense for a score and Colin Hawley got one from short range after a botched Canadian lineout.
USA vs. Zimbabwe
While the American offense was firing against Canada, it might have been the USA’s defense that won the game against Zimbabwe. An early try from Nick Edwards was followed by an extended injury break and some scary moments for USA fans as young phenom Maka Unufe was stretchered off the field after a knock to the head. (The stretcher was precautionary and the youngster is reportedly doing fine.) Unufe’s replacement, Jack Halalilo, would have big impact right away.
A pause in play can do some funny things to a team’s momentum, but veterans Zack Test, Colin Hawley, and Matt Hawkins combined to make sure the Eagles would keep it up. Test made a fantastic open field tackle and held the ball carrier up. Hawley muscled in and poached it. Eventually Matt Hawkins got his hands on it and paddled it on to Halalilo who was in support. That got the Eagles going again and Halalilo would score again thanks to his stellar support and a great line break by Folau Niua.
Zimbabwe tried to make it interesting and scored late, but their lethargy getting to set piece ultimately sealed their fate and the time expired, putting the USA in the number two spot coming out of the pool with a 2-1 record.
Tries: Niua, Unufe
Tries: De Almeida, Foro, Oliveira, Lino
Conversions: Leal (3)
Tries: Hume (2), Unufe, Hawley
Tries: Hassler, Douglas
Tries: Edwards, Halalilo (2)
Conversions: Niua (3)
Tries: Chitokwindo, Coles, Nemadire