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USA Men Hold Off French Barbarians 26-21

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USA Men Hold Off French Barbarians 26-21

USA Rugby photo.

Holding on desperately at the end, the USA managed to defeat the French Barbarians 26-21 Friday night at Aveva Stadium in Houston.

On a hot and very humid and energy-sapping night, the game itself wasn't the most dazzling of spectacles. But part of that can be chalked up to the USA defense, which, for the most part, contained the French flair the Barbarians were hoping to unleash. Meanwhile, a hardworking forward pack and two really well-taken tries told the story for the USA.

The teams circled each other for a time and it became clear that when Eagle fullback Marcel Brache got the ball deep in his half, he was looking for the 50-22. One of his efforts rolled into the French in-goal, but that wasn't too much of a concern as it led to a goalline dropout. From there USA flyhalf AJ MacGinty caught the ball and passed to scrumhalf Ruben de Haas, who calmly slotted a 48-meter drop goal to give his side the lead at 14 minutes. It was a carbon copy of the drop goal that de Haas scored against Canada last summer, only this time done at around sea level in humid weather, so the degree of difficulty was ramped up.

"Before the game I had this flashback to Denver and that goal he kicked there so when I caught the ball I just passed to Ruben and started running back to our half because I had that much confidence that he'd kick it, and he hit it pretty sweetly," said MacGinty after the game.  

Leading 3-0 the USA found themselves under plenty of pressure, some of it of their own construction. A lineout overthrow and some sloppy play worked to the French advantage and a charge up the middle by Bordeaux-Begles prop Jefferson Poirot led to a nifty offload to Pierre Aguillon and the Castres center was in under the sticks. François Trinh-Duc hit the extras and it was 7-3 French Barbarians.

But that lead didn't last too long. The USA defense in open field was nicely organized and they didn't miss too many tackles. A big tackle from prop David Ainu'u produced a knock-on inside the French half, and that paid dividends. From a solid platform de Haas skated left, delayed his pass as everyone worried about Bryce Campbell, and then fed wing Christian Dyer bursting in from the off wing. The former Cal captain was through and would not be caught, scoring a superb try that was well received by his hometown Houston Sabercats fans.

Up 10-7 now the Eagles began to play with a bit more confidence. They didn't do a lot with the ball—much of the rest of the first half was kicking and defense—but they looked in tune with what they wanted to accomplish. They had chances to add to the lead and some of those they let slip through mistakes, but they kept the pressure on.

Finally, they broke through once again. From another scrum the Eagles earned a penalty but opted to play the advantage. De Haas set up Tavite Lopeti and the former Saint Mary's All American barreled and thundered his way through several tacklers. One seemed to have him but Lopeti kept his balance and kept his feet moving and almost made it to paydirt. He was finally dragged down, but after a pick-and-go from hooker Kapeli Pifeleti, Ainu'u picked up, stayed lower, and crashed over. It was just reward for a very good half by the Toulouse prop (and former Liberty Patriot U19 player out of Washington state). MacGinty added the extras and it was 17-7 at halftime.

Minutes into the second half the Eagles took a lineout and set the maul; the Barbarians were penalized for collapsing it, and MacGinty happily slotted the penalty to make it 20-7. After that, once again the Barbarians were penalized, this time for offside after they muffed a de Haas box kick.

At 23-7 the USA seemed in control of the game, but there was plenty of rugby to be played. They could have gone for the jugular on another attacking lineout, but couldn't connect, and then a quick tap on a penalty by Barbarians scrumhalf Samuel Marques, who is an experienced Portuguese international, saw the halfback burst through. He was eventually dragged down by de Haas, but the USA scrumhalf refused to let him go—penalty and a yellow card. The Barbarians opted for the scrum, put the shove on, and got a penalty try. Suddenly it was a nailbiter again 23-14.

With debutant wing Mitch Wilson now performing scrumhalf duties (and not doing badly at all), the Eagles were able to get back into Barbarians territory. They got a couple of kickable penalties, but MacGinty said after the game that the wind had picked up and he thought it more prudent to go for the lineout and try. They came really close, ultimately getting a yellow card for the French Barbarians, but a lost ball right in front of the posts saw that attack die. It was proof they could get there again, but not getting points hurt.

After that it was a case of holding on desperately. A long defensive stand did result in a dropped ball by the Barbarians and a wild kick from sub hooker Mikey Sosene-Feagai. The ball bounced kindly for the USA and flanker Hanco Germishuys nabbed it. Had he had space to offload to Paul Lasike in support we might have seen a coast-to-coast try. As it was, the Barbarians somehow held on. And the next chance for the French saw them make no mistake. A long series of phases saw No. 8 Louis Picamoles bobble the ball. Had he caught it normally he probably would have been tackled. Instead, the defense hesitated for a second, and Picamoles was able to lean through a gap and offload to wing Raphaël Lagarde. Trinh Duc was good on the extras and now it was 23-21.

Luke Carty, on for MacGinty as everyone got a bit of a run, slotted a key goal, and then it was all about gripping the armrests and hoping they would hold on. The Barbarians got a series of penalties starting with one from a scrum at midfield. Each time the Eagles kept defending and didn't give up on the play. Finally, with time well past 80 minutes, the Barbarians took another scrum. They won it cleanly and started to work to find some space But again the USA pressure forced a knock-on, and the game was over.

Pretty? Maybe not. But MacGinty and Head Coach Gary Gold both praised their team's grit and toughness. For a group that didn't train as a 23 until Thursday, they showed plenty of unity of purpose, and Gold had plenty of praise for defense coach Scott Lawrence, who installed a sysetm the players could embrace quickly.

"It was a very good French team and while we made lots of mistakes the guys put their hands up and met the challenge."

"I don't think all the guys understand how good these [French] guys are," said Ainu'u, who is from Olympia, Wash. but plays against these French Barbarians players every week. "They are very tough, and it's a gift to be able to play them on US soil."

Added MacGinty: "It was tough being on the sideline at the end there, but winning this game, after not being together since losing to Uruguay, meant a lot. The last three weeks of preparation have not been perfect as guys had MLR games and the like, but we stayed cohesive and we stuck to the task." 

USA 26
Tries: Dyer, Ainu'u
Convs: MacGinty 2
Pens: MacGinty 2, Carty
DGs: De Haas

French Barbarians 21
Tries: Aguillon, Penalty Try, Lagarde
Convs: Trinh Duc2, Penalty Try