HOUSTON, as, June 12- It was a night for the record books for USA Rugby. Being a part of the largest ever crowd for an Eagles test match was a reward in itself. Fans from all around the country toting the red, white, and blue made their presence known from the early hours of the morning even with a 7:30 p.m. kickoff.
The Eagles went on to lose the match to Ireland in an all kicking affair that finished 15-12 in favor of the visitors. This outcome marks the closest ever result to a tier one nation that the USA has ever been. Of course many will say the majority of the Irish starters are off in Australia for the Lions tour, however, there were an equal amount of professional players on each team, which speaks volumes for the present state of rugby growth and perception in the States.
Even with professionalism on a steady rise, the many qualities that originally defined the sport of rugby are still present. Hundreds of old boys could be seen in large groups speaking about past tours and run-ins. Tailgates in parking lots highlighted the camaraderie and brotherhood that binds us together. The ordinary trip to the bar usually ended with an opinionated exchange of words on what USA Rugby could be doing better. These things alike continue to construct a great alliance that will be visible for years to come.
The match began and along with it the physicality. The American back row consisted of three seasoned professionals with the likes of Todd Clever, Scott Lavalla and Samu Manoa who began laying the wood from the kickoff. The rucks were controlled well by the Americans but the Irish were smart to play the defensive approach. Their early initiatives were better seen during open play with their expansive, wide offensive attacks against the Eagles that fortunately yielded no results.
The Irish Flyhalf and Leinster Inside Center, Ian Madigan, would end up being the American antagonist as he punished the USA with his boot off the tee. The result of which came through some speculative and controversial calls from Francisco Pastrana, the head referee. Most of the penalties could have, to an extent, been justified but to the naked eye they posed no real infringements worthy of penalties. Madigan was quick to act on the first couple of penalties on the Amercian half sending the Irish into an early 6-0 advantage.
On the ensuing possession, a turn over ball for the Eagles saw Winger Luke Hume chip forward a beautifully weighed quick that bounced straight into his hands bringing the 40,000 person crowd to their feet. Only 5 meters out from the try line, with a not releasing advantage, the Eagles couldn’t break the Irish defense and settled for the 3 points.
The second half saw a few changes for the Eagles. Early in the first half, Second Row Brian Doyle was replaced due to a nasty head clash. Hume was later replaced in the second half for an ankle injury that happened in his first half heroics that almost gave the Eagles a try.
Ireland continued to add the penalties from more head-scratching calls by the referee but in return so did the Eagles. The closest stroke of glory came after Manoa scooped a grubber intended for Irish and Munster Winger Simon Zebo and booted it down the field 60 plus meters to clear the line. The ball slowly rolled into the Irish 22 meter line as the crowd again rose to their feet as the hardly noticeable Takudzwa Ngwenya soared down the pitch on the chase. The ball bounced unexpectedly into his hands as the Irish Fullback fell to his feet however the anticipation was short-lived as Ngwenya couldn’t handle the ball and knocked it on.
After that last spark of brilliance, the match began settling down in the Irish half the way the visitors hoped. With no time left on the clock and the Eagles historically close to their first win over a tier one nation, the Irish Scrum Half Issac Boss cleared it into touch to end the match. As bittersweet of an ending as it was, that experience will remain fresh in the minds of thousands upon thousands of Americans for years to come.
The thing that set this match apart from many previous tests is the simple yet obvious fact that after all the predictions the USA were in it until the absolute last whistle. Physically and mentally they brought and applied the pressure. Had the ball bounced their way on a few certain occasions then we could have been talking about one of the biggest upsets ever in world rugby.
As they have traditionally, the Eagles walked around the pitch to thank their fans for a great outing by offering autographs and pictures to onlookers. It ended up being a great night. Meeting Samu Manoa, Chris Biller, Luke Hume, Ian Madigan and Eagles Head Coach Mike Tolkin.
The after party at Lucy’s Pub had their fair share of Eagles as well down, playing their presence with ordinary tee-shirts and blue jeans. There I met the likes of Eagle’s Sevens players Colin Hawley and Zach Test. They entertained a nice conversation with me regarding the upcoming 2013 Sevens World Cup in Moscow over a cold beer.
Lastly, fresh off of surgery and hidden away amongst most Eagles fans, I spotted Paul Emerick posing for pictures with some overzealous female supporters. He too was more than obliged to have a conversation with me, this made me appreciate the way these players represent themselves.
All in all it was a great night. With more anticipation and hype surrounding the Eagles now it is just a matter of time until this sleeping giant awakens.
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Allen Alongi is a former LSU and Archbishop Rummel High School Rugby player. He currently resides in New Orleans, LA.