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Ian Muir photo

Team USA has had to earn its 1-1 start in the season opener in Dubai Friday, with two nail biters to start pool play. The first one didn’t go their way, a 19-17 loss to France, but a spectacular finish went their way next, as they beat South Africa, 19-15.  

Against France, the only separation was a conversion. Both teams scored three tries a piece, but the French converted two, and the Eagles converted just one.

The Eagles got on the board first via Alev Kelter in the opening minute, scoring straight from an attacking rugby. The conversion was made, putting the USA up 7-0. France responded quickly, scoring off an American penalty, with Fanny Horta running up the right touch line. With the conversion, the score was knotted at 7-7.

France took the lead before halftime, turning the Americans over in a ruck in their own end. This kick was missed, leaving the USA down five at intermission.

The massive Jordan Gray imposed herself on the game at the onset of the second half, delivering a big hit and forcing a turnover, which Ryan Carlyle would cash in for the USA’s second score. The try brought the game level at 12-12.

There would be two more scores before the final whistle, with France dotting down first and converting to go up 19-12. Naya Tapper then got her first score of the season, and it all came down to a Nicole Heavirland kick, which was missed.

The South African game opened with both teams committing crucial errors. South Africa knocked on shortly after the kickoff, but the perpetrator wouldn’t let go of the ball on the ground after recovering it, giving the USA an attacking penalty. Carlyle made a run deep into the 22, but the out pass from the ensuing ruck was knocked on.

The Blitzboks won their scrum and went through some phases before making a break up the right side of the field. That created space on the left, and Zintle Mpupha took it, running in for the game’s first try. The conversion was missed, putting South Africa up 5-0 after four minutes.

The Eagles captured some momentum when Kelter made a thumping tackle in the middle of the field. Heavirland was on her six, dominating the ruck and turning the ball over. Carlyle then made a foray, before the field was reversed and the ball found its way into Tapper’s possession. She handed off one defender and was under the posts. The conversion put the USA up 7-5.

Tapper set up a scoring opportunity with a run that took three South African defenders to end. A phase later, she got the ball again, but couldn’t hold onto it. The loose ball was scooped back to Mpupha, who beat the broken defense for her second try, putting South Africa up 10-7 going into the half.

Abby Gustaitis regained the lead for the USA, taking a flat pass from Heavirland at full pace. She was away cleanly and had no one around her, but chose not to center the try, giving her assistant a tough angle for the kick. It was missed, but the Eagles led 12-10.

A series of self-inflicted mistakes led to the USA conceding the lead. Kelter was pinged for an intentional knock-on during a tackle in the Eagles’ own end. The Eagles won the ball back, but Carlyle knocked on with her heels on her own try line.

She rebounded with a try-saving tackle, and despite another American penalty close to the try line, South Africa was pushed into touch, giving the USA a defensive five-meter lineout. The throw wasn’t taken cleanly and bounced into the try zone, and Veroeshka Grain gathered it and dotted down for the go-ahead try. The conversion was missed – 15-12.   

Tapper, who had been subbed out, was brought back for the final minute. The Eagles got her the ball with enough room on the left flank to beat the defense and score the walk-off long-distance game winner.