The Mens USA Eagles had a second win within reach at Stade de la Rabine Friday, but could not find a late try to derail 13th-ranked Fiji’s 20-14 victory.

Kelly scores first international try in USA Eagles’ 14-20 loss to Fiji VANNES, France – The Mens USA Eagles started on the front foot with possession from the kick-off and reached Fiji’s 10, but were undone by a ball lost forward. The defence kept Fiji from turning the early momentum with strong tackles and multiple turnovers in the breakdown.

In the 10th minute, Taku Ngwenya singlehandedly saved a try with a tackle meters from the Eagles’ try line. Fiji, using its players’ ball-handling skills and pace, had created a gap in the defense. Ngwenya’s tackle forced a stoppage, during which match official John Lacey called play back to an earlier infringement. Inside center Nemani Nadolo successfully kicked the penalty to open the scoring at 3-0.

Neither team held a territorial advantage in the following minutes of play, as penalties against both the Eagles and Fiji kept the teams from threatening positions.

A penalty against the Eagles in the 18th minute led to an opportunity for Fiji to put three more points on the board, but the team wearing black instead chose to go for a lineout. A knock against Fiji ended that threat. The dam broke in the 27th minute after Fiji won its own scrum. Following only a few phases, full back Timoci Nagusa ran down the wing and under the sticks for the match’s first try. Nadolo’s conversion was successful, extending his team’s lead to 10-0. Three minutes later, Nagusa again found room between the winger Tim Stanfill and Phil Thiel in the middle of the pitch before offloading to Watisoni Votu for Fiji’s second try. The missed conversion kept the lead at 15-0 with 10 minutes remaining in the half. In the 34th minute, John Quill ran a perfect line between two defenders 15 meters from the Fiji try line and received a quick pass from scrum half Mike Petri. As he got closer to the sticks, Quill looked for an offload of his own, but the pass betrayed his teammate and drew the referee’s whistle for a knock.

The Eagles moved the ball well and found continuity between the backs and loose forwards in the final minutes of the opening frame, though John Cullen’s bulldozing run at midfield was cut short after losing the ball forward in contact.

In the dying seconds of the half after the first 40 had been played, the Eagles had two lineouts five meters from the try line. The first driving maul, with Thiel holding the ball at the back, drew a penalty and a yellow card on hooker Tuapati Talemaitoga. The second driving maul, however, resulted in a call against the Eagles for a knock in the ruck and Lacey ended the half not long afterwards. Despite the 15-0 scoreline, it was all to play for in the final 40 minutes. The Eagles again started brightly from the kickoff and pushed forward to Fiji’s half by runs from Cullen, Greg Peterson, and Thretton Palamo. Inside 20 meters from the try zone, Quill sent a pass to Seamus Kelly, who had an option in Stanfill on the wing. The outside center instead dummied the pass to Stanfill and cut inside two defenders for his first test try. Ronald McLean, in his first appearance for the Eagles, slotted the conversion for a 15-7 score.

Fiji nearly replied with its first opportunity following a quick move down the pitch.

Assured tackling and efficient work in the breakdown ensured Fiji came away from the Eagles’ half without points, though a penalty against Olive Kilifi in the 48th minute offered another opportunity. Nadolo’s penalty kick attempt, however, missed its target. Two minutes later, lock Leone Nakarawa went up against Scott LaValla on the wing. The Stade Français man held his ground and kept the Fijian No. 4 from scoring, but Nakarawa’s pass to Vereniki Goneva set up a separate try. The outside center moved to the inside of the park and, before being taken down by two Eagles, sent a long, looping pass to Votu for the winger’s second try of the match. The conversion was unsuccessful, keeping the Eagles within two converted tries at 20-7. The Eagles continued to push the pace with the last match of their tour coming to a close. In the 59th minute, the combination of Petri and Suniula got the ball out to an onrushing McLean, who quickly fed Ngwenya before taking a hit. The Biarritz winger turned on the jets to outpace the two closest defenders and took a step to the inside to cross the Fijian full back for a try beneath the uprights. McLean again converted the try to draw the Eagles within six at 20-14.

The most important try of the match would have come in the 67th minute, when Suniula found himself meters away from the try line with a defender on either side of him. Having already dummied a pass to get so close, Suniula decided to try the real thing with a teammate in support in front of the sticks. The fly half’s pass, however, was intercepted and cleared by a kick.

The Eagles recovered the kick at midfield and play was blown dead for an infraction, but not before Palamo, without the ball, took a shot to the face.

Try-scorer Votu was shown a yellow card, giving the Eagles another man advantage for 10 of the final 12 minutes. With an extra player and renewed vigor, the Eagles continued to move forward with ball in hand. The big bodies Mate Moeakiola, Palamo, and Peterson, as well as Kelly, broke the gain line in each run and put extra pressure on the Fijian defense. Multiple subs for Fiji in the final 10 minutes proved a smart move, however, as the Eagles could not find a third try.

Having begun the November Tour with a historic match against the New Zealand All Blacks and a victory against Romania on the other side of the world, the Eagles end the year with two consecutive losses.

Compared to last year’s matchup with Fiji – a 35-10 loss featuring Eagles like Eric Fry, Luke Hume, Blaine Scully, and Chris Wyles – Head Coach Mike Tolkin knows the 20-14 loss Friday shows signs of improvement in overall depth and ability of the national team’s player pool.

The Mens USA Eagles will continue the road to England and the IRB Rugby World Cup in 2015, with fixtures throughout the year still to be determined.

Mens USA Eagles | 14 Tries: Kelly, Ngwenya Conversions: McLean (2)
Fiji | 20 Tries: Nagusa, Votu (2) Conversions: Nadolo Penalties: Nadolo