In a game that was much more interesting than you might expect from a tryless rugby game, Ireland edged the USA 15-12 in front of a large crowd at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston Saturday evening.
All of the points came from penalty kicks, and penalties played a huge part in this game, as the Eagles, who had the most good scoring chances, struggled with the penalty count.
The USA started well, working hard to get the ball, and keep it. They asked plenty of questions of the Irish defense and, for the most part, Ireland answered and made their tackles.
Set piece became a question early, and the way you'd expect. In four early lineouts for Ireland, they won one, with an overthrow and two USA steals doing the damage.
For the first several scrums, the USA were penalized, the second one, ten minutes into the game, provided a kickable penalty for flyhalf Ian Madigan.
The Eagles were unlucky to get pinged in that scrum, but it signalled how the set piece would go for the evening.
Up 3-0, Ireland retained possession through a series of phases. The Eagles defense, highlighted by a massive tackle from Samu Manoa and another from Lou Stanfill, was superb.
But Ireland did finally get some territory when Chris Wyles was all alone under a high ball from Madigan. The support wasn't quite there to help Wyles in the tackle and eventually the Eagles were penalized for coming in front the side. Captain Todd Clever pleaded that you can't be in from the side when you step over the ball, but referee Francisco Pestrana would have none of it.
Easy kick for Madigan, and it was 6-0.
From the restart the Eagles had a promising attack when Todd Clever fielded a kick, popped the ball loose, and Taku Ngwenya had some room. Ngwenya was coralled and he sent a pass to Seamus Kelly in his first start. The young center saw the ball bounce of his face.
Another scrum, and another penalty, but then another steal in the lineout gave the Eagles their best attacking movement. Todd Clever, Andrew Suniula and Lou Stanfill all made ground, only to see a drop from Eric Fry.
The Eagles defense, though, held firm and after a big hit in one ruck the ball squirted to the USA side. Mike Petri popped quickly to Luke Hume who smartly kicked ahead into the Irish 22 and nabbed the ball on a wonky bounce. He was tackled, but he found support. The USA forwards bashed and bashed to the Irish line, but Ireland made their tackles. One, at least, was illegal, and Wyles slotted the penalty from in front of the posts to make it 6-3.
Referee Pestrana scolded Ireland scrumhalf Isaac Boss for a "very silly penalty," but no card was shown.
A silly penalty on the other side got the USA a warning, as Scott LaValla was penalized for being in an offside position on a ruck. Madigan slid that kick just inside the left upright, and Ireland were up six again, 9-3.
With ball once more, the Eagles kept taking it to the Irish. Samu Manoa broke through two tacklers to get into Irish territory. His support not right there, and indications, perhaps, of a player not familiar with his teammates. But Irish was over the top in the tackle, and Wyles hit the difficult penalty with style.
Ireland continued to have trouble getting through the USA line. Overall, the Eagle tackling was physical, and precise.
All the Eagles needed to do was stay out of the scrum. They didn't, often getting held up in the tackle. And, despite referee Pestrana's extended setup for the pack-down, this part of play was unpretty.
Late in the first half the Ireland scrum shoved the USA back, disintegrated their pack, and one penalty call later, Madigan was good again from about 35 meters. Ireland 12 USA 6, and seconds later that was halftime.
The USA started the second half with all sorts of go-forward. Clever thundered over two Irish tacklers, and some good work by the entire team to recycle quickly allowed Chris Wyles to inch ever closer. But a key turnover in the ruck gave the ball back to Ireland.
Another good sequence for the Eagles ended with the Americans being held up. Too many times, the USA players went into contact too high.
Every possession started to become crucial, and the intensity only increased as the half went on. With 50 minutes gone the Eagles were on defense, and knocked the ball loose, seemingly allowing a break for Seamus Kelly.
But the play was called back because Clever was seen to flip Devin Tony into the air during a ruck. Clever put Toner down, with the Irish lock's feet hitting the ground first. A long time watching the replay resulted in Clever getting a yellow card, and the Houston crowd started to think we were in deja vu, looking back on last year's debacle of a game against Italy.
Penalty to Ireland, and Madigan had no problem - 15-6.
But right after that Ireland were pinged for a ruck infraction near midfield. It was a long kick - well over 40 meters - but Chris Wyles pointed to the posts and thumped it over to make it 15-9.
The rest of the game was one desperate defensive stand after another for both teams. Little errors and weird plays loomed large. At one point, the USA fell victim to an obscure law that most don't know about: once you start to take a free kick, players that are ten meters back can charge you. Screams from the fans, but this call - a scrum to Ireland - Pestrana got right.
After that, another USA chance. A kick ahead by Ireland, and Manoa somehow fielded it and brilliantly kicked downfield. Ngwenya got on his horse and was a fingertip away from nabbing the ball and scoring. Had he done so, the Eagles might have won the game. Instead a scrum for the USA in the Irish 22, with Todd Clever back on the field.
The Eagles won the scrum and pounded their way closer. Kelly and Petri, two Xavier HS products, almost sneaked through. But eventually a penalty. Clever asked the ref "that's got to be a warning?" But no warning, even as Ireland kicked the ball away to prevent a quick tap.
Wyles lined up the kick, instead, and made it a three-point ballgame, 15-12.
After a long break for water Ireland kicked off short. Brian Doyle went up for the ball; Ireland's Robbie Henshaw tackled him in the air. No penalty, and Henshaw fell to the ground hurt.
After the Eagles turned over a scrum put-in on a wheel (the USA players felt the Irish had disengaged), you started to see the angry looks from everyone - this game was clearly too close for Ireland, and the Americans started to feel they were being hard-done by.
Eric Fry was called for collapsing the scrum, and, looking for a try, Ireland decided to kick for the corner. But they were penalized themselves for holding back a player, and the USA had a chance to get something started.
More running, more tackling, and another knock-on. Up 15-12, Ireland was happy to see the game tick away. The USA needed a break.
Finally, the desire to kill time hurt the Irish as they got a free kick for time wasting.
The Eagles went for an up-and-under, and then defended for two more minutes before forcing a knock-on at midfield. This looked like their last shot. Down by three, with four minutes to go and a scrum at midfield ... perhaps a prime place for Taku Ngwenya to find some room.
But the Irish swarmed Clever at the back and while the Eagles kept the ball, they couldn't do anything with it.
Ireland kicked ahead to try to get that elusive try, but Ngwenya was there, and he tried to run all the way to paydirt. He was caught, and pinged for holding on. Madigan lined up another kick attempt, and this time, missed.
And that was it. The Eagles needed to retain that 22 dropout to keep the game going. They didn't, and Paul Marshall kicked the ball to touch to end it.
It was a close game, and a game the USA could have won. They have to have felt they were treated harshly in the scrum, but had a couple of passes gone to hand, or they had broken a tackle or two in the Irish 22, they would have won. They didn't.
Pens: Wyles 4
Pens: Madigan 5
|Todd Clever (C)