The USA National Men's Rugby Team Eagles eked out a narrow 22-21 victory against the Chilean National Rugby Team Condors in wet-and-wild, power-outage-inducing mudfest on Saturday evening in Santiago, Chile. This was the first game in a two-game series against Chile as part of the 2023 Rugby World Cup qualifiers.
It's worth noting that the U.S. team, coming off of a recent win against the French Barbarians, only had a week to recover from the last match, travel to Chile, settle in, and train together for a bit before the game.
They've travelled 5500 miles, and played a tough game last week, but our boys will be ready! #usarugby #rugbyworldcup #USAvChile https://t.co/m3WX2lRjM9 pic.twitter.com/Zeiiy9ZVAT— US Rugby News (@USRugbyNews) July 7, 2022
The opening moments of the game foreshadowed the kind of game that was to come.
As the game started, the temperature for this Chilean winter evening game was 48 degrees Fahrenheit and falling, and it was raining massive torrents of water from the get-go. It had been raining all day, the field was already soaked, and there was no relief from the deluge in the forecast.
The crowd at the open-air stadium Estadio Santa Laura-Universidad SEK (https://www.stadiumguide.com/estadio-santa-laura-universidad-sek/) was a bit thin in places, but rowdy and raucous and ready -- what other type of fans would brave these elements to come cheer on their team? You could tell by the cacophonous gusto with which they sang the national anthem along with their team, lined up as they were at midfield before kickoff and accompanied by a brass band.
All eyes on next Saturday 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/UPPV5MJ1DP— USA Rugby (@USARugby) July 10, 2022
Chile kicked off, and almost immediate drew a penalty for hands in the ruck. In response, USA kicked for touch. In the ensuing lineout, the ball slipped out of the hands of the USA jumper for a knock on against the USA and a scrum for Chile. And right away, rain established itself as the dominant factor for the rest of the game.
And indeed, as the game went on, the combination of wet ball, wet field, and wet hands would often have unpredictable effects. Sometimes high kicks would hit the ground and land motionless in the mud. Likewise, there were a few perfectly timed grubber kicks that would have worked perfectly under dry conditions, except on this evening they just stuck like velcro to the ground. Yet other times, kicks would unexpectedly glance off the wet grass and roll unceremoniously into the try zone itself, or even out the back of the try zone, causing numerous 5-meter and 22-meter restarts throughout the evening. Not to mention the penalty kick and two conversions missed between the home and visitor teams that would have been considered relatively sure points under drier conditions.
A few minutes past kickoff, the USA team found itself with possession and threatening the opposition try zone. At one point, playing the advantage, USA recycled from a ruck and passed quickly down the line to Wing CJ Dyer who took it at speed and dashed in unchallenged to touch the ball down in the right corner at 6'. After the conversion by Fly-half AJ McGinty, the score was 7-0 USA.
At 16' with Chile threatening the USA try line on the right, USA drew a penalty, but Chile continued playing the advantage as fly-half Rodrigo Fernandez Lukas kicked it across the field in an attempt to hit Wing Franco Velarde on the run. Velarde dropped the ball into touch, but the ref brought the ball to the location of the previous infraction. Chilean Fullback Santiago Videla then coolly slotted the ball through the posts for 3 at 18'. Score 7-3 USA.
Soon after the restart, USA drew a penalty for offsides, around the 22 meter line in the middle of the field. Again, Chile played the advantage, unsuccessfully, and the ref brought it back to the point of infraction. Videla made this kick, too, to close the gap at 23'. 7-6 USA.
Around this mark it seemed that both teams began reconsidering their strategies, and a ping pong match broke out, played with a rugby ball. It seemed the Eagles' primary strategy was not to run up in attack, but rather to try to kick the ball up and over the line of defense, hoping the Chilean defense would bobble the high kick in the rain and the lights, and allow the USA a chance to win the ball back deep in Chilean territory. This approach almost produced positive results for the USA several times. The Reds were under constant pressure defending their half for a long time, and occasionally made handling errors mistakes, but the USA was never able to capitalize fully on any mistake and turn it into a score.
At 32', there was an exciting moment when McGinty kicked the ball into the try zone in the right corner and it seemed that Dyer has managed to outsprint his defender and touch the ball down for another US score. However, the replay showed that Dyer had not successfully touched it down before the ball slipped out the back of the try zone.
For the rest of the half, neither team could find an advantage over the other, and the first half ended with the score still 7-6 USA.
As the second half opened, the US came out strong in attack. At 44' Videla almost intercepted a pass, but the ball fell to the ground forward from him. Upon TMO review, he was charged with an intentional knock-on, which brought with it a yellow card penalty and a trip to the sin bin. The home crowd were none too pleased with that call.
On the ensuing continuation of play, with the Condors a man down, the Eagles took a lineout, formed a strong maul, and ground it out slowly but surely to the try line about 5m away, where Hooker Joe Taufete'e touched it down for the score. AJ McGinty attempted the conversion but missed, 12-6 USA.
At 51' Chilean Fly-Half Rodrigo Fernandez ensured his name would live on forever in highlight reels when, from a few meters in front of his own 22 meter line, he calmly fielded a high box kick from De Haas by trapping it with his foot a la futbol, then picked up the ball and proceed to zig and zag his way to a try, frustrating the attempts of 7 different Eagles players who tried to stop him. With Fullback Videla still in the penalty box, Center Matias Garafulic attempted the conversion but missed, leaving the score at 12-11 USA.
They say you can’t play running rugby in wet conditions… 😮— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) July 10, 2022
They were wrong.pic.twitter.com/uYRGW21jgi
On the restart, Videla returned to the game, and quickly made an impact when he kicked in a penalty kick at 55' to put Chile up 14-12.
And as if the game was not already exciting enough …. At 62' the Eagles had a lineout in the right corner. A fierce run by loosehead prop David Ainu'u was met by an equally stalwart Condor defense, and as the ruck formed … THE LIGHTS IN THE STADIUM WENT OUT.
This game is bonkers and I love it.— EK Rugby Analysis (@ek_rugby) July 9, 2022
Joe Taufeteʻe tackled so hard the lights go out...the actual stadium lights.#CHIvUSA pic.twitter.com/VWMvBwVD9l
From a TV spectator's point of view, it was near impossible to tell what was happening on the field, but the ball was still in play, and play continued in the semi-dark for another 10 seconds or so before the ref blew the whistle to pause the game.
At some point someone must have realized this problem was not going to be solved immediately. Both teams went to their respective lockers room to dry out and stay warm until the power returned. Eventually power returned and play resumed about 20 minutes later.
At 67', with the Eagles threatening in front of the goalposts, the Condors drew another penalty, giving McGinty the chance to kick for an easy 3, putting the US ahead 15-14 with 13' to go in the game.
At this point, the US had once again gained the momentum and were forcing the game to be played in the Chile half.
At 73' the Eagles were awarded lineout in the left corner about 10 meters out from the try line. A maul formed, until substitute Hooker Kapeli Pifeleti broke loose and found his way into the try zone for a score. McGinty made the conversion, to put the USA up 22-14.
The game was far from over though. At 77' USA drew a penalty, giving Chile the opportunity to kick to touch in the right corner. Chile threw a lineout, and formed the maul, which was brought to the ground oh-so-near the try line but not quite over it. The Chilean forward pack went to work, picking and diving, left and right, each time stopped by the US defense inches just from the try line. Finally, Chile swung it out left to their backs, where the ball ended up in the hands of Videla, who found an opening to scurry into the end zone. Videla then successfully made the conversion, allowing the Condors to close the gap to within 1 point when the final whistle blew at 81'. The USA Eagles won, 22-21.
What. A. Match. pic.twitter.com/CI7lxSapmu— USA Rugby (@USARugby) July 10, 2022
After the game, USA Head Coach Gary Gold said:
“It was as gritty a performance as one could expect out there, the conditions were visibly on another level, but I am unbelievably pleased with the effort our guys put out there tonight. Through the elements and delays we did what we set out to do in Santiago, come away with a win on the road.
It was a little closer than we would have hoped in the end, with their closing try narrowing the gap, however this squad was resilient in the tough situations and adapted well. At this stage the goal is clear, get a win on home soil.”
The victor of the 2-game match is decided simply by the point differential. With the 1-point USA victory, the two teams are essentially on equal footing as they head into the second half of the series. However, the Eagles, having emerged victorious on foreign soil, will now enjoy the benefits of home field advantage when they host the Condors at Infinity Park in Glendale on Saturday, 7/16.
#CHIvsUSA and that's game. A one point victory for the USA. And since the outcome of the two-match series depends on the point differential, It's like that proverbial halftime when your coach tells you to think of the second half as a new game where both teams are 0-0. #USARugby— US Rugby News (@USRugbyNews) July 10, 2022