For the pessimistic fan, the final 20 minutes wasn’t the best, as the Eagles made what could have been a blowout interesting, and cost them an IRB Rankings bonus which kicks in with a 15-point victory.
The USA defeated Russia 40-26 in the IRB International Series in Colwyn Bay, paced by a superb performance by the American forwards, two tries from scrumhalf Robbie Shaw, and 15 points from fullback Chris Wyles.
But there was much to be positive about. The Eagles were put under pressure early and gave up a penalty kick from fullback Igor Klyuchnikov. But then the story of the next 55 minutes, or so, started, as the American forwards were just quicker in the breakdown and did superbly well to break the gainline, even after first contact.
After going down 3-0 the USA put a long sequence together that showcased just that determination. That sequence was stopped by a good Russian tackle and a kick back behind the USA defnese. paul Emerick then managed to gather the ball, circle around, and burst through almost untouched. His pass to Luke Hume just didn't go to hand, but it was beautiful stuff just the same.
The USA confidence showed through then. They were quick on the hit in the scrum, forced a free kick five meters out, and then the forwards did the work, with prop Eric Fry sliding under Russian hands to get to the line. That made it 7-3.
After another Klyuchnikov penalty made it 7-6, the Eagles started to open it up. Working to offload out of the tackle, and using the wind to kick for territory when it was on, the Americans started garnering some tries.
Shaw made a nifty move off a ruck and offloaded out of the tackle to debutant flyhalf Toby L’Estrange, who cut against the grain for his first try to make it 14-7 following a Wyles conversion.
Only little mistakes prevented even more scoring, but Russia’s defense, while imperfect, was also ferocious. Todd Clever had a worrying moment when he was hit in the cheekbone by a Russian tackler’s head (not intentional). He stayed on the field, but was eventually replaced early in the second half.
A superb break by L’Estrange, who consistently challenged the Russian backline defense, could have seen Andrew Suniula in for a brilliant try, but Suniula was a little flat in support and L’Estrange’s pass a little behind.
Top Russian forward, No. 8 Victor Gresev, was sin-binned with about seven minutes to go in the first half, when he took USA lock Brian Doyle out in the air in a lineout. It was a stupid penalty on the Russians' part, and they paid for it. After a few minutes of dithering, the Eagles got a lineout near the Russian line, flanker John Quill picked from the ruck, and slipped the ball (there are those offloads again) to Doyle for his first USA try. Chris Wyles, who had missed one penalty, was true with his third conversion for a 21-9 lead.
The second half started poorly for the USA as the kickoff by Wyles didn’t go ten meters. But with the Eagles scrumming fairly solidly, they were able to keep Russia from really punishing them from the pack-down at midfield. Paul Emerick made two impressive tackles in the stand, and after a Klyuchnikov miss on a penalty attempt, the USA got back on the front foot.
All evening, even when the wind was against them, the Americans won the kicking game. The Russian kicks were to USA players, and they had little chase. Wyles called for the mark at least five times. The USA kicks were more on point – right in front of 22-meter-line, or into space behind the Russian deep three. One such exchange saw wing Luke Hume punch a kick deep into the corner. The result was a lineout and the Eagles launched an attack that ran through a couple of phases before Wyles took a pass, dummied, and was in for a try and a 26-9 lead.
Moments later the USA was back scoring. Scott LaValla made a brilliant play to rescue a wayward lineout throw, and from there the USA used all their weapons to get close – Shaw claimed his first as he picked and scampered through a tiny gap.
It was 33-9 USA, and at this point, the USA seemed completely in control. But the wheels got a little loose after this. Clever was taken off as a precaution, and the USA subbed on a couple more forwards, and the USA seemed to lose a little of their mojo at that point.
Wing Vladimir Ostroushko, who had punished the USA in the Churchill Cup in 2011, started breaking tackles, and the organized and committed USA defense that dominated the first 60 minutes started to falter. Ostroushko scored a try to make it 33-14
A sin-bin to Chris Biller (coinciding with one for Russian scrumhalf Alexey Shcherban) didn’t help the USA unity any, and in the end it was the USA defense that suffered.
Flanker Andrey Temnov surged over for a try to close the gap to 33-19. The USA got one back. After a long period of pressure, punctuated by some iffy passes, Hume danced his way past some grasping arms, and popped a pass to Shaw in support for the try under the posts. At 44-19 the game was in control, but Russia scored again, with flyhalf Sergey Sugrobov breaking a tackle or two and finding Ostroushko, who dished to Temnov for the flanker’s second try. Klyuchnikov hit the conversion from the touchline, and the USA was a little worried.
More worried they were in a moment, as Russia burst over L’Estrange. However, sub scrumhalf Mike Petri made a brilliant tackle, and LaValla was there to force a holding-on penalty, and that play probably made sure the game was won.
The Eagles didn’t end clinically, but they did end it.
“We dropped off a little bit but I am proud of the guys,” said Clever, who added he was feeling fine. “They’re a big, physical side, so we knew we had to tighten it up and be strong in the tackle.”
Shaw had a superb match, as he was right on the ball to make sure the USA quick-ball game was on song. The scrumhalf, said Clever, “was great. He’s a good leader on the team. He’s dangerous around the fringes. We just need to learn to run off him a bit better.”
In the end, for 60 minutes the USA looked like an athletic team, improving in the scrum, clinical in the lineout, committed on defense, with all kinds of potential in the backline. They weren’t perfect during that time, but they were pretty good. A string of subs, losing their captain, and a yellow card to their hooker undercut their unity, and that is something to work on later. For now, it was a convincing victory, with their front row playing outstanding rugby in almost all aspects, and one to build on.
Tries: Shaw 2, Fry, L’Estrange, Doyle, Wyles
Convs: Wyles 5
Tries: Temnov 2, Ostroushko
Pens: Klyuchnikov 3
1. Shawn Pittman 2. Chris Biller (Zach Fenoglio @60) 3. Eric Fry 4. Brian Doyle (Inaki Basauri @60) 5. Lou Stanfill 6. Scott LaValla 7. John Quill 8. Todd Clever (Peter Dahl @ 54) 9. Robbie Shaw (Mike Petri @ 65) 10. Toby L’Estrange 11. Luke Hume 12. Andrew Suniula (Roland Suniula @ 55) 13. Paul Emerick 14. Cornelius Dirksen 15. Chris Wyles
Not used: 17. Nick Wallace, 18. Tony Purpura, 23. Gearoid McDonald
1. Grigory. Tsnobiladze 2. Valery. Tsnobiladze 3. Evgeny. Pronenko 4. Alexander. Voytov 5. Kirill. Kulemin 6. Andrey. Temnov 7. Pavel. Butenko 8. Victor. Gresev 9. Alexey. Shcherban 10. Sergey. Sugrobov 11. Vladimir. Ostroushko 12. Alexey. Makovetsky 13. Vasily. Artemyev 14. Denis. Simplikevich 15. Igor. Klyuchnikov
16. Vladislav. Korshunov 17. Alexey. Volkov 18. Innokentiy. Zykov 19. Andrey. Boltenkov 20. Ramil. Garbuzov 21. Gleb. Babkin 22. Vladimir. Gaisin 23. Dmitriy. Gerasimov