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The United States clinched its second Cup Quarterfinal appearance in as many weeks Saturday, despite falling 17-7 to New Zealand and finishing pool play 1-2.
The Eagles entered the final pool contest with a comfortable point-differential lead over both Scotland and Samoa, needing to lose by 36 points or less to advance, and they did much better, actually leading the All Blacks at halftime.
By finishing in the top eight, the Eagles will bank more Series points in Hong Kong and Tokyo than they did the previous five tournaments combined.
They also guarantee to widen the gap between themselves (13th place) and
Portugal (14th), while also gaining ground on Scotland (12th place). Both
Scotland and Portugal missed out on the Cup Quarters.
The United States started the contest with the ball, but Madison Hughes kicked for territory after a couple of fruitless phases. New Zealand then put together an impressively methodical possession, completing 20 passes, before Bryce Heem finally broke a patient Eagle defense for the opening try.
The All Blacks nearly got in again when Ben Lam busted through the middle of the line, but a desperate tackle from Zack Test turned the ball over. Mike Palefau was pinged for not releasing the ball in the tackle on his own five meter, and an All Black quick tapped and dove for the line, but Andrew Durutalo and Test held him up, preventing the score.
The Eagles’ first offensive break came when Hughes slipped through a Lam tackle and scurried to inside the attacking 22 before running out of space. He knocked on in the subsequent tackle, giving the ball back to New Zealand.
Some pesky defense won the Americans the ball back, and Test nearly scored a try with no time left on the clock a couple of New Zealand penalties later, but knocked on while trying to ground the ball.
The All Blacks opted to try and go 100 meters for a score instead of take the lead into the half, and a couple of more penalties deep in their own end gave Test the chance he’d need. He tapped through the ball from five meters out, stepped one defender and lunged into pay dirt. Hughes converted, putting the United States up 7-5 at intermission.
New Zealand regained the lead at the top of the second stanza. Durutalo was called for a high tackle seconds into the half, the All Blacks passed wide off of the penalty play, where Heem simply ran around Danny Barrett for his second try. The conversion was missed, putting the Eagles down three at 10-7.
That lead was extended shortly thereafter. Garrett Bender went directly into contact off the kickoff, New Zealand promptly poached, and Lam ran in with relative ease. This conversion was hit, putting the score at 17-7.
With the result in hand, and both teams into the Cup Quarterfinals, the Eagles and All Blacks both finished the game without much urgency.
Awaiting the Eagles in the Cup Quarters will be either Fiji or Wales.
New Zealand 17
Tries: Heem (2), Lam