GLENDALE, Colo. – The USA Eagles played a wide open and exciting brand of rugby to defeat Georgia 36 – 20 in front of a packed Infinity Park.
“I think we’re just starting to build our style of play, and looking to run with the ball,” the Eagles’ Chris Wyles said
It was also a match of firsts for this young team. Coach Mike Tolkin earned his first victory at the helm of the program. Taylor Mokate earned his first start and scored his first try. Former BYU player Shaun Davies, Derek Asbun and Andre Liufau all earned their first cap as Eagles as well.
Davies, a native of South Africa became eligible to play for the Eagles after having 36 months of residency.
It was veteran Paul Emerick however who came running out of the tunnel before the rest of his teammates to take some well-deserved recognition for earning his 50th cap on the night. Emerick has been a stalwart on both Eagles 15s and sevens sides since 2003, and has been one of the USA’s greatest servants to the game.
Following the emotional opening to the match, the Eagles carried the momentum onto the pitch and began to attack the Georgians from the opening kick.
Just two minutes in, tighthead prop Eric Fry thundered his way through two tacklers and picked up 40 meters on the line break before being brought down. Georgia was penalized for being offside at the breakdown and Chris Wyles was set up with a chip shot of a penalty kick. The kick sailed true, and the Eagles were out to a 3-0 lead early.
The attack kept right on coming from the USA. Moments after the penalty, James Paterson pinned a defender and had Todd Clever out wide with plenty of space, but the pass would scuttle off into touch. Referee Marius Jonker had an advantage being played to the U.S., however. Wyles missed that attempted kick at goal.
The Eagles kept breaking defensive lines though. Andrew Suniula was especially dangerous, running hard, sharp lines all afternoon. Following a USA lineout deep in Georgia territory, Suniula hit pay dirt with that hard running, when he ran over a would be tackler, and stretched out for a try. 8-0 to the USA after about 10 minutes.
About 10 minutes of back-and-forth play in midfield would pass before Georgia would retaliate for Suniula’s try. Some slick passing and good hands, paired with some missed USA tackles, resulted in No. 10 Merab Kvirikashvili diving in the corner for a try. The kick was no good, so the U.S. hung on to the 8-5 lead.
Following the kick, the US marched right back into Georgia territory, and the visitors would again be pinged, this time for not rolling away. Wyles would make them pay for the mistake, and the US extended their lead 11-5 after 23 minutes.
Not long after that, the USA was back in business again. James Paterson collected a loose ball on the wing, and looked up to see noting but grass in front of him. Sprinting down the touchline with desperate defenders closing in, Paterson offloaded to debutant starter Taylor Mokate who was following close behind in excellent support. Mokate pinned his ears back and dove in for the try under the posts. Wyles’ kick was successful, and the US took the 18-5 lead.
Following a Georgia penalty kick, the USA would go right back to work as the first half drew to a close. Hard running Andrew Suniula made yet another line break, shaking off multiple tacklers and offloading to Mike Petri who finished the break with a diving try. The Eagles added another penalty just before the half to go into the break 28-8 and looking strong.
Georgia opened the scoring in the second half when No. 12 Merab Sharikadze received a little flip pass just two meters out that caught the Eagles wondering if there should have been a call for obstruction. There was no call however, and the try stood, 28-13 US on top.
Wyles added another penalty, but Georgia would find the try zone again next when No. 13 Davit Kacharava inched over from a maul. 31-20 now, and just like that the Georgians were starting to crawl their way back into the match.
The dagger in the heart of the visitors could come just a few minutes later when a Georgian backline player attempted a grubber kick through the US backline. In a bit of a fortuitous bounce, the kick ricocheted off the heel of Andrew Suniula, and straight into the hands of Todd Clever. Clever was having a hard time holding onto the ball though, and bobbled it right into the hands of Paterson who raced in for the final try of the match.
Following the match, Tolkin says he is noticing the new, wide-open game plan starting to come to fruition.
“We’ve worked hard in the last two weeks,” he said. “We came out in the front foot, and we’ve finally started taking hold of games early. It was sloppy at times, but for the most part it was open, guys were really having a go, and putting Georgia under a lot of pressure.”
The Eagles now move on to Houston where they will square off against Italy at BBVA Compass stadium on Saturday, June 23. Tolkin says the team is looking forward to improving on a solid foundation.
“The guys saw the hard work being translated into success against Georgia. Coming into next week, we’re excited to build on it, and carry on that enthusiasm that is at the heart of it knowing we have to step it up against Italy.”