The US Eagles advanced to meet the haka at Soldier Field, following the Stars and Stripes and drawing a roar from a keen home crowd. The game that followed was at times similarly fiery but, missing key players through injury and unavailability, the Americans were unable to sustain the challenge and capitalise on three yellow cards for the Mãori.
Thanks to the game being staged outside the international window, the USA were without most of their players employed by top clubs in England and Wales. Thanks to injuries sustained before kick-off, they also ran out without their captain, the wing Nate Augspurger, and the full-back Luke Hulme.
Those who did take the field gained the better of possession and territory and scored three tries.But they conceded nine and their record against the Mãori now stands at played five, lost five and coach Gary Gold has a first defeat, after eight wins in a row.
The game was the last of three at the home of the NFL’s Bears, a day-long event for which USA Rugby said more than 30,000 tickets were sold. But Soldier Field holds more than 60,000 and, something else that may not please promoters eager to establish a foothold for rugby union in the competitive US market, the Eagles’ defeat was actually the closest contest.
The New Zealanders won the first match of the day, the world champion Black Ferns women beating a callow USA 67-6. After that, Jordan Larmour scored a hat-trick and a young Ireland team scored 40 second-half points to beat Italy 54-7.
For the Mãori, the No8 Akira Ioane, considered unlucky to miss out on the All Blacks tour to Japan and Europe, was a standout. Regan Ware, Mitch Karpik, Ash Dixon, Ben May, Rob Thompson, Jonah Lowe and Shaun Stevenson scored a try each while Isaia Walker-Leawere bagged two. Otere Black kicked five conversions and Josh Ioane two.
Walker-Leawere’s fellow lock, Pari Pari Parkinson, was generally considered lucky to have avoided a red card when he was shown yellow for a lift and drop on a much smaller man, Eagles scrum-half Shaun Davies. Had Davies landed on his head rather than his back, Parkinson’s punishment might have been more permanent.
Captain and hooker Dixon and his replacement, Robbie Abel, were the other Mãori sent for 10 minutes in the sin-bin, Abel’s departure leaving scrum-half Brad Weber to temporarily assume lineout-throwing duties. Coach Clayton McMillan will expect better discipline in their remaining tour games, likely blowouts in South America against Brazil and Chile.
For the Eagles, the centre Ryan Matyas, Tim Maupin – the replacement for Augspurger – and No8 Cam Dolan scored tries, the fly-half Will Hooley kicking two conversions and a penalty. Led by the flanker Tony Lamborn, New Zealand-born and a Southland player in the recent Mitre 10 Cup, the Americans were intensely committed but could not execute at pace in attack or impose themselves in defence in anything like the way of the visitors.
Depleted as they were, the American men were more experienced than the women, for whom 13 players won a first cap in the team’s first game since the last World Cup, which was played in August 2017.
Captain Kate Zackary perhaps spoke to the greater truth of the entire Chicago event when she told USARugby.org: “We knew it wouldn’t be about the scoreline today, it was all about the experience.”