What did the New Zealand Maori think of tonight’s game against the USA? First and foremost, the visitors tipped their caps to their opponents for a demanding, hard-earned win. The Kiwis also got a taste of the chant-loving crowd.
“It was quite a tough game, and it was exciting to the win in front of a great crowd,” said Elliot Dixon, a two-year veteran of the New Zealand Maori. “Coming from Toronto, where they’re nice and placid, and then coming to Philly – we were expecting that [experience] based on reputation. They really got behind their boys, and it was like the 16th man out there. But we managed to just get on.”
The Kiwis got their first taste of the home crowd during the national anthems. A sellout crowd of 18,500 sang the Star-Spangled Banner, and as the camera panned across the Eagles, it was evident that the Americans were channeling that support. And then, when the Maori began their haka, the crowd drowned out the always-impressive display with the oppressive “U-S-A” chant.
The Maori weren’t fazed, however, and proved as much when scoring the first try early on, but the rest of the first half saw the Americans slowly but surely diminish the lead and eventually overtake the Maori, 9-7, into the half – a result that few expected, including the visitors.
“In the first half we were making too many errors down in their half,” Dixon said. “Our discipline was down, too, especially around the breakdown, and they were kicking from everywhere. In the second half, we knew that if we stuck to our systems that we could ground it out. When we scored those two quick tries, it was a momentum kick.”
Although deflating, the USA continued to chip away at the scoreboard, and with fewer than 10 minutes remaining, the Eagles were back within three points, 22-19.
“They wanted it, they were hungry,” Dixon said of his opponents. “When they came out there in the second half, they had fire in their eyes and they wanted the game. Credit to the boys, we played our game plan and it just worked for us.”
New Zealand Maori tacked on a final try during the last couple of minutes, effectively putting the game out of reach (29-19).
“We’ve bonded together pretty well,” Dixon said after the two-game tour. “The first game [against Canada], our defense was quite patchy, but today we did quite well. What let us down were some of those little things on attack, which usually click for us Maori boys. This week it just didn’t really click. I guess it would be nice to get a long campaign, five or six games, but it’s the nature of the beast.”
“We’re very happy with the outcome,” Dixon considered the entire tour. “It was hard, two tough wins in North America. We didn’t know what to expect. The level of competition was up there with any other games we’ve played. It was up there with Super 15 rugby.”
It was a unique experience for both sides, with the Maori transplanted into the middle of a sports-crazed city, and the USA putting in a gutsy performance against a tier one nation.