[Photo: Luke Hume dots down the first try of the NACRA 7s final. Judy Teasdale photo.]
Neither side was perfect. Canada’s kickoffs erred more often than they had all tournament, lineouts went astray, players were caught not playing the whistle. The USA’s tackling was sub-par, defensive coverage was off, support was slow. However, both sides found themselves trailing on the scoreboard at some point, but Canada didn’t droop their shoulders the way the USA did, so noticeably. Even when the Eagles rallied with back-to-back tries to tie it up, you never saw their confidence return.
The action that preceded the first try was indicative of the back-and-forth that would ensue. Colin Hawley took the short Canadian kickoff and eventually drew a penalty to restart the American attack. Hawley gave it a go down the sideline, fending Tyler Ardron but not Phil Mack, who pushed him into touch.
But the Canadian lineout didn't turn out well, as the errant pass from Mack to Ciaran Hearn forced a boot to space. It was a good boot though, but Tai Enosa found a seam and streaked back downfield. Hearn was on his heels and grabbed him just short of the line, where Enosa was isolated from his support. Hearn drew a penalty and kicked to touch. Possession continued to change hands with penalties and lineout errors.
Finally, Luke Hume got a chance to put his sidestep to work, and just when you thought there were enough hands on him, he emerged out the other side. He had to battle the defense for one more iteration – and in the process accidentally collided with Make Unufe, taking him out of the game with what looked like a bad concussion – but found space down the sideline for the try. Shalom Suniula converted the sideline two-pointer for the 7-0 lead.
The Eagles knocked on the next kickoff but briefly regained control from the subsequent scrum when Enosa pounced on the ball as Canada stepped over it. But then another USA penalty for diving over handed it right back. As Canada marched downfield, the USA allowed themselves to get sucked into the tight game along the sideline, and the home team waited for the right moment to quickly spin it wide. John Moonlight had just enough room to dot down in the corner, 7-5 after six minutes.
The USA got a break when Canada’s next kickoff went straight out. Suniula found a seam then offloaded to Mike Palefau, who got his side to Canada’s 22 meter. But before the USA could make the territory count, Sean Duke broke down the sideline to relieve some pressure. A high-speed joust ensued as Carlin Isles struggled to bring Duke down. After about 50 meters, Isles' brought him to ground. The USA wasn't set up quickly enough on defense – not that it mattered. When the ball worked out to Conor Trainor, it was two-on-two, and the Trainor beat Palefau on a stiff-arm for the try. The Mack conversion put Canada in the lead, 12-7.
The USA started to lose their cool. Two consecutive penalties saw Canada back on the USA’s 10 meter after a long Hearn kick. The Eagles stole the lineout, Hawley made decent ground, and the ball recycled across the field. Canada’s defense was pretty oppressive and when Hume couldn’t dance around his opposite, he sent a pass that Moonlight tipped into the air. It fortuitously fell into Moonlight's grasp, and he earned the last 10 meters shoving defenders out of his way to the try zone. Mack made it a 19-7 lead into the break.
When the USA retook the field, fans hoped to see a rejuvenated side to support. Instead, the players’ looked burdened, as if two tries were impossible to score in 10 minutes. They were slow to get up off the ground, stymied by Canada’s ankle wraps; were suddenly fielding very shallow lines; and were slow in support.
Canada looked good for the next minute or so, with Mack making a fantastic pass back inside while being pushed out of bounds, and Canada’s scrum dominating before being recalled for straight-out. The USA had the ball, though, and as they made some hard charging runs into the defense, one could see some fight left in them. Twice, Canada’s hands went up in the air asking for obstruction calls – and they would have had a case – but the players didn’t play the whistle. Isles noticed and carved right through the gut of the Canada defense, dotting down untouched. Suniula converted for the 19-14 scoreline.
Peter Tiberio followed with a five-pointer when an errant pass sent the ball dribbling into empty space between the two sides. Players converged, but Tiberio’s boot got there first. He kicked it ahead along the ground, chased and was rewarded with a bounce right into his arms for the try, 19-all.
This could have been the moment that the USA continued moving forward, and it looked like the Americans were going to tack on another five. But Hume’s unobstructed lane to the try zone was called back for a previous knock-on.
The recall was the turning point. If the call had been missed, then the USA might have won. But it wasn’t and Canada used the opportunity to build one final attack. An unguarded weak side allowed Duke to streak down the field. Enosa was sweeping, but Duke won the duel and scored beneath the posts. Mack’s conversion sealed the 26-19 victory.
The stands erupted. Both Canadian teams ended the day with titles, and both of them deserved it. Stay tuned for player feedback.