WORCESTER, England - The USA Eagles ended their Churchill Cup campaign with a solid 32-25 Bowl Final win over Russia to gain momentum heading to their August fixtures against Canada and Japan.
"We are delighted to finish the Churchill Cup with a solid win," said USA Head Coach Eddie O'Sullivan. "It was hard work, as we expected it would be, and heavy rain before the kickoff made handling difficult. It was a game that could have gone either way especially when it opened up in the second half. But I think we showed great heart and composure to take a late lead and close out the game."
The coach also cited team cohesion and patience as key ingredients in the USA win.
Lead changes were frequent in the Bowl Final, but USA tenacity and opportunism sealed the victory for the Eagles. Nerves in the first half may have caused some concern under the high ball and in the set piece and Russia was able to pressure the Eagle defense in those areas, particularly in the first half.
The score was tied 8-8 at halftime following a Paul Emerick try stemming from patient Eagle buildup and a Malifa penalty early on in the game. The Russians crossed the Eagle line by spinning the ball wide and simultaneously drawing in USA defenders by deploying dummy runners in the midfield. The second half would see the Eagles hit their stride.
Flyhalf Nese Malifa was the linchpin on attack, his timing in the offload and his precision dropping the ball to boot invoked Russian paranoia that kept the opposition scrambling. Malifa was phenomenal on defense as well and earned Man of the Match honors for his virtuoso display in the number ten jersey.
"Russia had some very physical players, we had to bring the fight to them, we couldn't let them bring the fight to us," said Malifa after the game.
Captain Todd Clever led the way with the "bring the fight to them" mentality. He was strong in the contact area and sniffed out two key turnovers in the second half, one of which was for a try. The Eagles wouldn't relinquish the lead for the rest of the match.
Blaine Scully, who was called into the squad last week, was very confident and composed in his 2011 Churchill Cup debut at fullback and put his hand for World Cup squad contention. A run from deep by Scully kick-started a USA counterattack that resulted in a try by Tai Enosa following great offloading and ball movement by the USA centers, Emerick and Andrew Suniula.
O'Sullivan, acknowledged that Scully answered the call and showed a lot of character in his test debut.
"There were some great individual performances throughout the team. But special mention must go to Blaine Scully. Starting at fullback in his first test game after being called in as a late injury replacement was a tall order. After a nervous start, he grew in confidence as the game developed and finished really strong," said the coach.
The USA front row of Chris Biller, Mate Moeakiola and Shawn Pittman were handy in the open field. The 260 lbs. Moeakiola had two line breaks, both for around 20 meters. That kind of go-forward ball set the tone for his fellow front rowers and Pittman and Biller got around the pitch magnificently.
After two tough losses to the England Saxons and Tonga earlier in their first two Churchill Cup matches, the Eagles are a much more cohesive side now than were earlier in the tournament.
"We had some new faces [in the squad] and we had to get the new players into the structures," Malifa said. Anticipation of one another and good support running helped the Eagles to victory, and is an indication that the squad is gelling.
O'Sullivan knows there is work to be done yet before the Eagles head to New Zealand for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
"Our next assembly will be in early August for the warm-up games. We have plenty of work to do in the meantime and are looking forward to building on today's performance as we head to RWC 2011."
The Eagles will have three test matches in August before their first Rugby World Cup fixture against Ireland on September 11. They will meet Russia again on September 15.