An inspired second half from the United States led to a double digit comeback win against a very strong Canada side.
Entering this game were two teams that seemed headed in opposite directions. The Americans had dropped their first two games by a combined score of 71-5, while the Canadians were coming off a big victory over France and an extremely marginal defeat to England. Many expected Canada to roll over the US.
But not the Eagles. They knew after those first two games they'd left alot of points on the field. They knew they'd had some really bright moments in those fixtures. There were just a few things they would need to clean up that, if fixed, could open the game wide up for them and the large number of electric players throughout the squad.
However, it was Canada that came out of the gates the aggressor. The Maple Leafs quickly got over the try line after a long breakout from flanker Janna Slevinsky ultimately set up front rower Olivia DeMerchant for the opening try of the match just minutes into the contest. Sophie de Goede nailed the conversion and the Eagles quickly found themselves down 7-0.
On the ensuing kickoff, the once-again superb American flanker Rachel Johnson forced the first of her many turnovers at the breakdown, although a knock on a couple phases later halted the Eagles' first scoring chance. Canada then made another break of its own, but the American's cover defense came up strong, tracking back and forcing a knock. This would prove to be a theme of the contest; the Canadians made many long runs all game, but the speed and heart of the US defenders saved the day on countless occasions.
Off of the following set piece, the tenacious teenage duo of Eti Haungatu and Emily Henrich linked up for a big gain to set the Eagles offense on the front foot. Alev Kelter then made her first impact of the game by bumping off a couple tacklers and putting lightning-fast winger Kris Thomas away up the sideline for a long scamper inside the Canadian 22. Canada gave away a penalty shortly there after, and Kelter punched a kick over to bring the score to 7-3.
Canada, though, responded almost immediately. The Maple leafs retrieved a well-placed kickoff from flyhalf Taylor Black and proceded to romp down the field on the back of some snappy play from scrumhalf Brianna Miller. Olivia DeMerchant bowled over for her second try of the first 15 minutes, and Canada was up 12-3.
At the 23 minute point in the half, Canada was awarded a penalty just outside the US 22 after Kate Zackary was called for going off her feet in a ruck. De Goede hit a line drive between the sticks to push the score out to 15-3 Canada.
The subsequent kickoff saw Rachel Johnson pinch another ball off the Canadians at the breakdown, and a couple of big carries from hooker Joanna Kitlinski and flanker Elizabeth Cairns got the Eagles right down by the line. Johnson was involved once again, filling in at halfback to find rising star Henrich, who fought through multiple tacklers to dot down for the try. At 15-8, it started to feel like the US were well and truly in the game, and their confidence slowly started to grow.
Another mistake by the Eagles on the kick off, however, gave the Maple Leafs a good attacking opportunity with a scrum just outside the 22 meter mark. Sophie de Goede took a No. 8 Pick off the back of the scrum and was met hard by Cairns and Zackary. Johnson got right in there once again and stole the ball, but this time around the ref ruled that a ruck had already been formed, and so the US was penalized. De Goede knocked the kick over for another three points and it was 18-8 to the Canadians at the half hour mark of the match.
Just after the second de Goede penalty, Canada made another huge break, through halfback Miller and flanker Fabiola Forteza. This one looked sure to be a walk in try when Forteza pinned the last defender and passed to her outside center Holly Anais who was in for all money's worth. But then, out of nowhere, Kris Thomas came zooming back into frame and hawked down Anais from behind, roughly eight meters from the line.
After absorbing some enormous pressure from the Canadian forward pack, the US finally tightened down defensively just meters from the line. Cairns put in a strong hit to jar the ball loose just before the whitewash, and second rower Alycia Washington was right there to pounce on it and win possession back for the Americans.
They unfortunately gave possession right back with a knock on though, and the pressure was back on once again.
A massive hit from Haungatau put the Maple Leafs on the back foot, and then a wonderful effort from Captain Kate Zackary to get her hands on the ball at the breakdown won the Eagles a penalty, and for the first time in almost five minutes they could finally clear their lines.
The teams traded a few more big hits before going into the half with the score Canada 18-8 USA.
After the interval, the Eagles showed their intent and their tenacity immediately. They kicked off to Canada and quickly turned them over, Alycia Washington again reacting quickly to a loose ball on the deck and retrieving it. The ball got out to Haungatau and she showed some nifty footwork and a powerful stiff arm to get deep into the 22. Unfortunately the US picked up a needless penalty just yards from scoring and Canada was let off the hook.
This would also turn out to be Haungatu's final act; after offloading the ball to Henrich on her big run, she landed funny and damaged her shoulder. It was a fantastic 42 minute performance from the 18 year old.
Then, slowly but surely, the US began to grab the game by the scruff of the neck. The Americans started to make dominant tackles and started to puncture holes in the Canadian defense. Save for a few costly handling errors with the greasy, sweaty ball the Eagles could have run in more tries in the opening 10 min of the second half.
Perhaps the ultimate game-changer for the US was the reinforcements brought on to close out the game. Katana Howard, Amy Talei Bonte, and Bulou Mataitoga entered the contest and put in some great runs, passes, and hits in the backline. Reserve props Nick James and Hope Rogers came in and destroyed the Canadian scrum for the remainder of the match. Asinate Serevi and Stacey Bridges tore it up with their offloading and handling skills, both linking up nicely with their teammates to get America rumbling foward.
But the substitute who stole the show was scrumhalf Olivia Ortiz. The Davenport University product came in at the 51st minute and brought just what the doctor ordered. She was a livewire that injected the pace and energy into the side that the Eagles have been lacking all Super Series. Ortiz upped the speed at which the ball was getting recycled, and her quick-thinking had the Canadian women on their back foot for the remainder of the game.
For good measure, she also made some very aggressive sniping runs around the base of the ruck and connected on a few offloads with her teammates to set them up for good carries forward.
Shortly before the 60 minute water break, Canada finally got itself in a good position to score. If the Maple Leafs could punch one in there to push it to a three score game, it could have been over. But just five meters from the line, Rachel Johnson put in a big tackle and Elizabeth Cairns got in over the ball to win a penalty and avert the danger. This proved to be a big turning point.
After the water break, the rejuvenated Americans connected on a lineout inside their own half, just beyond the 22. After some solid carries from the forward pack up to the 10 m line, Ortiz picked the ball off the back of the scrum and darted to her left. It looked like she was going to carry it into the line, but just at the last moment she released the ball to a charging Alev Kelter.
Kelter took the ball at pace and quickly shook the the first defender out of her shoes, before stepping right around the next one. Then she was off to the races with a Beauden Barrett-esque acceleration that left everyone in the dust. Nobody was going to stop her, but a Canadian pursuit defender did at least come across to force the mercurial playmaker into the corner for a tough conversion. Kelter didn't care. She stepped back inside, right through the tackler like she wasn't even there to dot down under the sticks. She quickly landed the conversion and it was now getting really tense at 18-15 with 16 minutes to play.
In the 72nd minute, the Americans found their first lead of the Super Series. After an extended passage of play where the US started to make a lot of headway against the Canadian defense, Katana Howard made a half break and offloaded to Stacey Bridges, who snagged the ball one-handed and charged through. She looked to feed one of her trademark offloads to Henrich, but a Canadian hand got in the way and slapped the ball down, backwards.
Undeterred, the Dartmouth product and Sorensen award-winning Henrich kept with it and scooped the bouncing ball on the run, broke a tackle, and burst into the open field. She was finally dragged down at the Canada 22, but the Americans' support was there to recycle quckly through a powerful pick and drive from Johnson. With the Canada defense totally unorganized and chaotic, flyhalf Katana Howard sensed an opportunity. She got a quick pass from Ortiz and then turned to her right and floated a beautiful kick towards the try zone.
The speedster Thomas raced onto it and did well to grab the loose ball. She zoomed in for the five-pointer and finally the Eagles had their noses in front. For the last eight minutes of the game, the American confidence and determination ensured that Canada would get nowhere near scoring. A marvelous job of maintaining possession and grinding out the clock saw the Eagles finish off the Maple Leafs and prove the doubters wrong. Canada 18-20 USA.
It was a performance that could be a turning point for Rob Cain's side. They showed grit, heart, and an athleticism unmatched by any of the other teams. The depth in the side was also something that will be very encouraging moving forward.
There were a number of outstanding performances by the American women, but without Alev Kelter, Rachel Johnson, and Emily Henrich the comeback would have never happened. Those three lead the way by example and with the help of inspirational captain Kate Zackary, they motivated the rest of the team to stay in the fight and ultimately get over the line for the win.
It's been a wonderful week for sports in the United States, and it's to our women athletes we owe that. First the US Women's National Soccer Team claimed its second consecutive world cup title, and then the rugby team won the battle of the border over one of the best outfits in the world. The future is bright for these Eagles, and with another two full years to get the right pieces in the right places ahead of the world cup, it's an exciting time to be a US rugby fan.