MARIETTA, Ga. – The Men’s Eagles scored three tries in eight minutes in a 32-13 win against Uruguay Saturday at Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw State University to qualify for the IRB Rugby World Cup 2015.
Both teams entered the second leg of the RWC Qualifier even after last weekend’s 27-27 draw at Estadio Charrua in Montevideo, but the Eagles had home turf and a roaring, 6,000-plus crowd in Georgia.
The area around the stadium was overcast all morning and the rain eventually started falling as the game began. Much like the first leg, the match started slowly with multiple knock-ons forcing scrum after scrum.
Starting prop Olive Kilifi looked to have sustained an injury after taking a low hit in the 10th minute. Captain Todd Clever was the next Eagle to be found on the ground in the 14th minute when he was hit hard at midfield.
Kilifi was replaced by Nick Wallace not long after, but the Eagles had to deal with another player off of the field when Andrew Suniula was sent to the sin bin in the 17th minute. The referee went to the T.M.O. to review the scuffle Suniula had with a Uruguayan, though he was the only player carded.
Uruguay opted for scrums when the Eagles took penalties with the man down and used their physicality to force even more penalties in the scrums. In the 21st minute, after three failed scrums in which the referee penalized the Eagles, Wallace was shown a yellow card. Eagles Head Coach Mike Tolkin had to throw Titi Lamositele into the fray as a front row substitution. Clever, who required medical treatment, came off of the field in favor of the Saracens man.
“I didn’t want to, but it was the right move and our vice captain – [Mike Petri] – and our forward leadership, I had confidence with them to take the roles and make the necessary calls,” Clever said.
Uruguay pounced on the opportunity to exploit the space vacated by two players on the pitch with quick ball movement in the ensuing scrum. Joaquin Prada received the ball 10 meters from the try line and dove over for the opening try. Felipe Berchesi, who accounted for 17 of Uruguay’s 27 points last weekend, kicked the conversion for a 7-0 lead.
The Eagles managed to kill off the time on Suniula’s yellow without giving up any more points and even managed to put a few attacks together before the London Wasp reentered the match in the 27th minute.
Suniula did not waste any time in trying to make up for his transgression by moving the ball forward at each opportunity. In the 29th minute, he helped the Eagles march into Uruguayan territory. Luke Hume got the ball 10 meters out and found Blaine Scully on the wing. Scully slipped, however, and could not find his footing before he slid into touch for a Uruguay lineout.
For the next three minutes, the Eagles knocked and knocked on Uruguay’s door. Louis Stanfill, Eric Fry, and each forward had an opportunity to push back Los Teros. In the 30th minute, the Eagles were held up in the try zone, then again in the 34th minute. They won the ensuing scrum, welcomed Clever and Wallace back onto the field, and were awarded another penalty due to a hit without a wrap on the prop. Uruguay received a yellow card for the hit.
The Eagles decided to take the opportunity to get on the scoreboard with a penalty kick from Chris Wyles to narrow Uruguay’s lead to 7-3.
Stanfill escaped a yellow card after the restart when the referee looked at his tackle on a Uruguayan. Stanfill’s arm appeared to hit the attacker high, but it hit the ball and was not deemed dangerous enough for a card – just a penalty. Uruguay opted for points instead of another scrum and Berchesi kicked the penalty through the uprights for a 10-3 lead.
After the first-half whistle, Berchesi set up for another penalty kick, which he again successfully put through the posts, giving his team a 13-3 haftime lead.
The Eagles came out in the second half with an extra burst of energy compared to the tired-looking Uruguayans, who made early substitutions.
“In the second half we moved the ball a little wider from the rucks, changed the point of attack, and used some of that space that we had,” Tolkin said. “We played physical, we have some size to us. That was part of our agenda: make them tackle us and they did that. Anyone’s going to wear down.”
The Eagles kept possession for the majority of the first 10 minutes of the second half and even managed to win a few scrums in the process. They were awarded a penalty in one scrum five meters from the try line and got the ball into open play with another won scrum. Clever, Fry and a few other Eagles each got hands on the ball as the team held on for multiple phases. Samu Manoa was hit low twice during the attack, but the Northampton Saint got the ball to Fry from the ground on the second occasion for the prop to score the Eagles’ first try. Wyles converted to make the score 13-10.
Berchesi could have put some space between the two teams in the 50th minute after Scott Lavalla went offside during a Uruguayan maul, but the flyhalf’s kick did not go the distance.
Wallace combined with hooker Phil Thiel to force a turnover with a big hit a minute later and it was Wyles’ turn to try his foot at a penalty kick. Wyles’ attempt reached the posts, but too wide to earn three points.
Uruguay had not reached midfield with possession at that point in the half as the Eagles put together cohesive attacks. The big bodies of Cam Dolan, Lavalla, Stanfill and Suniula wore down Uruguay during an attack in the 57th minute, which brought the Eagles closer to the in-goal.
The visitors committed a penalty in the 61st minute near their own 22 and Petri, seeing the opportunity to make a run, took a quick tap past the Uruguayans and dove under the posts to score his first try in two years and the Eagles’ second of the match. Wyles kicked the conversion and the Eagles had a 17-13 lead.
The lead was not enough for the Eagles, who had tasted blood and wanted more. Clever took it upon himself to grab the ball from the scrum in the 66th minute and hooked it back to Suniula in Uruguay territory. The Eagles cleanly moved through phases and Shalom Suniula, who had been substituted minutes earlier, juked two defenders with a sidestep and ran 10 meters for the Eagles’ third try. Suniula earned his first cap in a substitute appearance last weekend in Montevideo and scored his first career try for the Eagles in Atlanta. Wyles converted for a 24-13 lead.
Not to be outdone, Andrew Suniula followed his brother’s try with one of his own. Hume fed the inside center, who held onto the ball through two tackles and slid into the try zone to dot down for his sixth career try and a 29-13 lead.
Having scored three tries in eight minutes, the Eagles continued their 26-0 run with more positive attacking play and another Wyles penalty kick in the 77th minute.
The Eagles could have had one last try in the final minute of the match, but the ball was lost forward in the in-goal, giving Uruguay a scrum. The Eagles won the scrum and kicked the ball to touch to bring an end to the match.
Despite the wet weather for the majority of the match, the Eagles escaped unscathed with the 32-13 win to qualify for their seventh IRB Rugby World Cup. The fans who stuck around at Fifth Third Bank Stadium witnessed a gritty performance from both teams.
“I am very proud of my players,” Uruguay Head Coach Pablo Lemoine said. “Really proud. They are smaller, they are amateurs, they study, they have family. They train for three hours per day, but they are really brave.
“They are prepared to be in a World Cup. I hope we can make it.”
The Eagles struggled in the first half in the first leg and again faced problems in the first half of Saturday’s match, as well. They held Uruguay to 13 points, playing with two men down late in the first half, and kept their heads up to find a way to win.
“We put ourselves under a lot of pressure, but we didn’t panic, though,” Clever said. “We knew we were going to break them, we were confident with it, but it took longer than expected.
“We just didn’t panic. It wasn’t going our way and no one panicked. We knew what we needed to do and things started clicking. We caused our own luck and you could see in our try celebrations how much it means to us and how much we wanted it at the end of the game.”
“It didn’t go too well in the first half,” Tolkin said. “We were a little slow, we were stuck in our end, we didn’t take advantage of our chances. We found ourselves down two men. The first half was really about hanging on and keeping our composure a little bit.
“The second half was about sticking to our game and not trying to do everything at once. I think the guys showed tremendous poise on the field and great leadership. We chipped away and eventually the floodgates opened.”
The crowd at Fifth Third Bank Stadium totaled 6,197, a massive crowd compared to the last time Uruguay visited the States in 2009.
“It was a great venue,” Clever said. “The crowd really got behind us. It was an awesome atmosphere. The fans came out in the rain and wind and pumped us up. I know the boys really liked doing to lap-around.
“Atlanta’s treated us well. It’s a step in the right direction. We’re getting good venues and we’re getting bigger crowds. It’s great to see rugby growing in America.”
The Eagles, with an aggregate score of 59-40 over the course of the two legs, are in Pool B at the IRB Rugby World Cup 2015 England with Samoa, Scotland, South Africa and the Asia 2 qualifier.
(From USA Rugby press release)