Tonga victorious in PNC battle of the Eagles

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TORONTO – The Men’s Eagles suffered their widest margin of defeat of the 2015 World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup Wednesday as Tonga scored three tries on the way to a 33-19 victory.

Andrew Durutalo (Suva, Fiji) scored two tries in the final 10 minutes, though the Sea Eagles held a lead for nearly 75 minutes of the match at BMO Field. The U.S. will play in the fifth-place match Monday, Aug. 3, in Burnaby, British Columbia. ESPN 3 will provide the live broadcast.

Looking to build off of the U.S.’s first win against Japan since Rugby World Cup 2003, the Eagles beganWednesday’s match with energy, but lacked the focus of a veteran side. Full back Troy Hall (Portland, Ore.) drew an early penalty before Louis Stanfill (Sacramento, Calif.) helped break through the gain line.

The Eagles lost possession, however, and, within seconds of winning the ball, Tongan fly half Kurt Morath expertly placed a chip kick across the pitch to Fetu’u Vainikolo. Though he still had nearly 60 meters and a few defenders between him and the try line, the kick spread the Eagles enough for the wing to slip away from three tackles to score. Morath converted the try for a 7-0 lead.

Tonga had the better luck with the ball throughout the match, but also ran into a stout forward pack wearing red, white, and blue. Zack Test (Redwood City, Calif.), in his first career 15s start, helped ease pressure in the backs with his big boot, with one such occasion drawing the opponent offside. Folau Niua (East Palo Alto, Calif.) put the Eagles on the scoreboard with the 14th-minute penalty goal.

Minutes later, Morath kicked his first penalty goal of the match to restore the seven-point lead at 10-3.

Hayden Smith (Sydney, Australia) replaced Stanfill in the 18th minute after an awkward collision in the tackle, and the Eagles failed to approach the Tongan try line with multiple handling errors gifting Tonga possession. Morath extended the lead to 13-3 in the 24th minute and narrowly missed his fourth attempt at goal in the 30th minute. A third penalty goal by the fly half sent the teams into halftime with Tonga holding a 16-3 lead.

“We put ourselves in good spots early but did not do well enough to take advantage of it, and then made unforced errors to compound the problem,” Head Coach Mike Tolkin said.

The Eagles came out of the break hoping to erase the deficit as early as they could, and smart play and hustle by Niua started the trend. The center kicked a loose ball and chased it towards the try line, and did well enough in the breakdown to win a penalty. He successfully kicked the penalty goal to draw the U.S. within 10 at 16-6 on 47 minutes.

Hall and Test faced a similar defensive situation as their Tongan counterparts in the 50th minute, running after a loose ball kicked by their opponent. Hall got to the ball first and passed to Test to clear, but the lineout inside the U.S.’s half resulted in the match’s next try.

Jack Ram refused to be tackled after Tonga’s lineout win, and, by the time he faced the prospect of going to ground, found Telusa Veainu on his inside for the score. Morath’s conversion extended the lead to 23-6.

Morath and Niua traded penalty goals before the Eagle hit the post with another in the 61st minute to keep the score at 26-9. The U.S. forced a turnover on a lineout five meters from its try line before Shalom Suniula (Auckland, New Zealand) kicked the ball clear. The lineout and offensive stance from Tonga inside the Eagles’ half, however, proved fatal as the ball flipped to the wing for Vainikolo’s second try of the match.

Down, 33-9, the Eagles put together their best offensive attacks of the match in the final 15 minutes. Advantage was played as the U.S. approached Tonga’s try line and Durutalo replicated his first international try with a dot down in a driving maul.

The 70th-minute try brought the score to 33-14, and the Eagles continued to work to get back in possession. Two misthrown lineouts within 10 meters of the try line ended the U.S.’s hopes of a comeback, but the Eagles were able to cut into the deficit one last time in the final minute.

Mike Petri (Brooklyn, N.Y.) took the ball from a ruck outside the try line and dove towards the in-goal area, but was stopped just short by a well-placed defender’s arm. As the support for the scrum half piled into the ruck, Durutalo patiently waited for the space to dot down under the pile of players to bring the final score to 33-19.

The U.S. will end its PNC campaign Monday in the fifth-place match against Canada at Swangard Stadium. In their last encounter, the Eagles defeated Canada at Bonney Field in the final PNC match of 2014. Canada, sixth in the PNC standings with losses to Japan, Tonga, and Samoa, will also host the U.S. in Ottawa next month as both countries finalize their Rugby World Cup preparations.

“We had almost a completely new side from Friday night so continuity was an issue, but we still needed to perform the basics like retaining ball at rucks and winning lineouts,” Tolkin said of the loss to Tonga. “We need to keep the ball better and manage the game better in our end.”

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