Today in USA Eagles (Spoiler Alert)
(The above is the Sipi Tau, the Tongans' take on the pre-match war dance. It took me by surprise this morning. Very nice.)
Raise your hand if you were in line outside Fado before 8 am today to get ready for USA-Tonga in the Rugby World Cup. Yeah, that's right, I'm the only one with my hand raised, because I was the only one there at 7:45.
Luckily, a crowd of about a dozen folks showed up pretty quickly after that, including Michael Schieffer of Washington Rugby and Rob Farley, who played for the Eagles at RWC '91 in England.
What we saw was disappointing enough that even now, two hours after it ended, I'm still a bit lethargic. Bearing in mind that I'm no rugby expert, and that I was peppering MS with rules questions throughout, here's my basic analysis: USA played the part of the Chicago Bears. Excellent time of possession, an ugly but ultimately effective grinding style, success in sight and then the most eye-coveringly awful turnover you can imagine, leading to a quick score the other way. I swear I saw Rex Grossman on the USA sideline at least once. I know they're amateurs doing their level best, but it was hard not to be frustrated when victory kept dodging away in the form of dropped balls and passes slightly off-target.
(Blog interruption: Tonga was playing its first match of the Cup. The USA was playing on less than 96 hours rest after facing the defending champs. Meanwhile, Group A powers England and South Africa both get at least five days between games, usually more. Thanks, IRB. If you check the links below, the Eagles took pains not to blame the short turnaround for their performance today, which was classy. But still, c'mon.)
Anyhow, the USA fell into a miserable early deficit when the Tongans scored a try off the opening kickoff, mauling their way downfield in about 75 seconds. Not the way you want to start. The USA was also at an absurd hair disadvantage; the Tongans had an incredible array of fantastic 'dos, including a bushy explosion of curls, a modified mohawk, dreadlocks, a spiky pony tail thing and several other notable stylistic choices.
While the feed briefly conked out, Tonga scored on a penalty, and just like that it was 10-0. This was supposed to be the best chance for the Eagles, who had taken it to England in the second half just last week, and now all the momentum was on the wrong side. But by midway through the half, things had evened out, at least in theory. The USA was controlling possession; Falls Church native Mike Hercus had a long penalty try that went wide right, and but for some sloppy passes the USA could have gotten right back into it.
Penalties for each side made it 13-3 at the break; the Eagles' could have added a second penalty at the end of the half but opted for a line-out that quickly fizzled, summarizing the first half.
But the second half was a different matter. By early in the second half some Tongan hands were resting on Tongan knees. The Eagles seemed to make a strategic choice to put this game in the hands of their forwards, and so the match devolved into a slugfest: the USA would inch their way forward, only to be foiled at the last moment by an errant pass, at which point the attack would quickly be joined again, one blade of grass at a time. It was within 13-8 after a hardfought Mike MacDonald try; then a lightning Tonga counter made it 18-8. A TV replay brought the Eagles within 18-15 late in the match, and the Eagles were clearly controlling the pace of play. Optimism coursing through Fado. Then again, a turnover, a lightning counter, some ineffectual arm tackling and it was 25-15, as good as over. That was the final score.
"Very disappointing, but they played well," Farley said. "They've done some things very well, but when they had chances they didn't capitalize."
Tonga's population is about 115,000, and they--like the Eagles--only had two all-time RWC wins. This was a clear opportunity for the USA to get a result, and no matter what the explanation, it was a discouraging outcome. Next up is South Africa and then Samoa; both will be considerable challenges, to say the least. Like I said, I have a pit in my stomach that doesn't seem to be going away.
(Also bear in mind that I don't really know what I'm talking about with this whole rugby thing, so apologies if I got any of the words wrong.)
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