Written By Joe Harvey I Photos provided By USA Rugby
Drawing with Portugal 16-16 in Dubai, the USA Eagles failed to reach the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France as a result of a points difference in the Final Qualification Tournament.
It was hardly 80 minutes filled with mesmeric tries. It was more about the fine margins and which side would manage the fixture better with so much on the line. With that in mind, it was prudent for each side to take every point available to them.
That tone was set early on, the Eagles beginning brightly and forcing Os Lobos into an early error, AJ MacGinty duly calling for the kicking tee. Despite going up early, things would not go entirely the Eagles’ way, as Nate Augspurger was shown a yellow card for a dangerous tackle.
With a man advantage, Portugal would score from the first phase of a lineout through wing Raffaele Storti, who made his way back inside towards the posts to make Samuel Marques’ conversion all the easier.
Portugal center Jose Lima would also find himself sent to the sin bin for the accumulation of penalties as the Eagles marched forward. MacGinty would call for the tee again, the team’s captain keeping well in the chase of their opponents.
That game of cat and mouse would present itself twice more before the break, Marques getting the opportunity to extend Portugal’s lead a little more with the boot, while MacGinty’s penalty on the stroke of half-time, shortly after he had missed another effort, meaning that the USA trailed 9-10.
The uncomfortable manner of things would continue as time went on. After the break, Marques got three opportunities to extend Portugal’s lead, the scrum-half only nailing one of those kicks and keeping the Eagles right on the heels of the Europeans.
As the game wore on and bodies tired in the United Arab Emirates, it was in close quarters that meters could be found. Marching into the Portugal 22m, the USA put themselves back in charge of the contest thanks to the hard carrying of Kapeli Pifeleti.
A series of strong carries sucked red shirts in, the former San Diego Legion hooker diving low to evade the snare of Portuguese defenders and seeing the opposition’s loosehead, Francisco Fernandes, shown yellow.
Playing against 14 men, the Eagles were unable to extend their lead any further, and when Portugal was restored to a full complement, it did not get any easier. For the entirety of the game, it was known that a draw would mean Portugal would qualify automatically, their 85-0 mauling of Kenya last weekend giving them such a superior points advantage.
Winning a scrum penalty on their own five-meter line was the catalyst for Marques’ late penalty. Making their way up the field slowly but surely, with the penalty advantage behind them as Jack Iscaro went off his feet at the ruck, Jerónimo Portela attempted a drop goal only for the ball to cannon off the posts.
So back up the field, the ball went for Marques to line up the kick and send his country to a second-ever Rugby World Cup.
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