CARSON, Calif. – Blaine Scully scored three tries Saturday at StubHub Center, but the Eagles could not rebound from a quick, second-half attack from Japan in a 37-29 loss in their first match of the 2014 IRB Pacific Nations Cup.
Scully almost opened his account in the seventh minute of the match after the Eagles held possession through a few phases. The Leicester Tiger took a loose ball at midfield and beat three Japanese defenders before being tripped up by a fourth five meters from the try line. Without support, Japan managed to clear the danger.
Cam Dolan, appearing in his 10th match for the Eagles, took advantage of a lazy, Ryu Koliniashi Holani pass from a lineout a minute later and ran 20 meters for the match’s first try and the Northampton Saint’s second career international try. Chris Wyles successfully kicked the conversion for an important, 7-0 lead.
The lead was the first for the Eagles since March 29 in Atlanta, Ga., where Mike Tolkin’s men qualified for the IRB Rugby World Cup 2015 with a win against Uruguay at Fifth Third Bank Stadium. It did not last long, however, as Japan responded with a try of its own in the 13th minute.
A Japanese maul mere meters away from the try line drew in more Eagles than Tolkin would have liked, and Fumiuaki Tanaka grabbed the ball and beat Mike Petri with a quick step to dot down in the try zone. Ayumu Goromaru kicked the conversion to level the match at 7-7.
Kenki Fukuoka could have given Japan the lead in the 16th minute. The visitors won a scrum and attacked deep from their own half to set up the play for the winger. Fukuoaka got the ball between the Eagles’ 10 and 22 and beat Wyles around the outside, but Folau Niua knocked the ball loose from behind before Fukuoka could force it to the ground.
Goromaru kicked his first penalty goal of the match in the 22nd minute, but Wyles replied with a penalty of his own three minutes later to tie the match, 10-10.
Scully stopped a try in the 28th minute with a trailing tackle on Fukuoka, who could not catch a break in the final third. Japan kept possession, however, and came back with bite and a try from Akihito Yamada. Goromaru converted again to give Japan a 17-10 lead.
It was Japan’s turn for a short lead, however, as Scully scored his first try of the match in the 33rd minute. Japan lost the ball forward near its own 22 and Wyles was there to gather it and fend off his opposite number. He turned towards the touch line and fed Scully with a no-look pass to fool the defender. Scully raced into the try zone for the third try of his career. Wyles knotted the score at 17-17 with a tough-angled conversion from the touch line.
Goromaru had a late chance to send the teams into the half with his side on top, but his penalty attempt missed the target for a 17-17 scoreline. The Eagles carried a bigger pep in their step compared to last weekend, as well, after only mustering two penalty goals in a 24-6 loss.
After his mistake on Dolan’s try in the first half, Holani redeemed himself in giving Japan a lead two minutes into the second half. The eight-man grabbed the ball from a scrum on the Eagles’ try line and dove over for the lead. Goromaru kicked the conversion between the uprights to bring the score to 24-17. He added another penalty in the 50th minute to extend the lead to 27-17.
Holani scored his second try of the half in the 53rd minute with another strong, Japanese scrum knocking on the Eagles’ door.
Down 32-17 with 25 minutes remaining, Tolkin substituted his front rowers for Tom Coolican, Eric Fry, and Titi Lamositele. Thiel appeared to be injured for a second consecutive match, but again managed to walk off of the pitch under his own power.
Fresh legs helped the Eagles, but it was young blood that led to the Eagles’ next try. Seamus Kelly offloaded to first-cap Danny Barrett near Japan’s 10 and the flanker rushed towards the 22 before continuing the Cal connection to Scully, who finished the attack with a dive into the try zone. After confirming with the T.M.O., the referee awarded the try and Wyles converted to cut the deficit to 34-24.
The Men’s Eagles Sevens were represented well in the 66th minute when Niua caught a Japanese kick at the five-meter line. The center moved forward and found Shalom Suniula and Scully to his right, but Japan put an end to the attack after Scully lost the ball.
In the 68th minute, Wyles broke a tackle at Japan’s 10 and was knocked into by a defender, but not before he found an onrushing Scully on the wing. Scully scored his third try of the match and fifth try of his career to put the Eagles closer to a comeback. Wyles stayed down after the play from the hit, and Niua’s conversion attempt went wide to keep Japan ahead by an unconverted try at 34-29.
The Eagles came close to sniffing the try line in the final minutes, but Goromaru put the match to bed with a penalty goal in the 72nd minute for the 37-29 final score.
Despite the loss, the Eagles can take heart in knowing the match was there to be won, as opposed to the loss to Scotland last weekend, in which they could only muster two penalties for a total of six points.
“The performance was miles above last week’s,” Tolkin said after the match. “I think we take that positive out of the game.
“We had gaps where we let them have a lot of momentum. We knew that was an area we had to shut down. We couldn’t let them get periods of continuity and that’s what they did right out of the gate in the second half. But the guys responded well, they didn’t back down until the 80th minute. They were aggressive. Now we just have to make it a consistent 80 minutes.”
Japan wins the Asia/Pacific conference title after a second win in the Pacific Nations Cup. The Eagles will continue their Pacific Nations Cup campaign Saturday, June 21, against Canada at the new Bonney Field in Sacramento. Live coverage on Universal Sports begins at 5:30 PM ET.
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(From USA Rugby Press Release)