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The list of teams the USA has played and never beaten shrunk by two in 2018, down to eight. The firsts are a pair of 30-29 wins for the USA, over Scotland in June and Samoa Saturday. Both were delivered by deciding kicks at the death – the latter sealed by a missed Scottish conversion, and the Samoa victory captured by a 39-meter penalty by Will Hooley.
Combine those firsts with a 9-0 test record and second-straight Americas Rugby Championship title, and the 2018 Eagles are enjoying the most successful stretch in the team’s 42-year history. Saturday, they’ll try to makie it 10 tests in a row against Romania in Bucharest.
Continuing the streak was big. Beating Samoa, a team almost always ranked higher than the USA but not currently, for the first time was historic. Those two factors make Saturday’s result easy to appreciate, but to fully relish in the feat, you need more context.
The Eagles are not at full strength. Their frontline scrumhalf is out with a concussion. Nate Augspurger, whose captained the team and was Shaun Davies’ main rival for the starting nine jersey, is also out with injury. So the USA was down to its third scrumhalf Saturday, having to fly in its fourth and fifth the week of as cover.
It took an outstanding performance from the best flyhalf ever to boot up for the USA to beat Scotland in June. That man, AJ MacGinty, is also injured. The guy whose heels he’s been nipping at for the title of best Eagle, Samu Manoa, was also surprisingly unavailable.
Eric Fry was supposed to earn his 45th cap Saturday. If healthy, he likely would have started at loosehead, making him the most experienced American on the pitch. Head coach Gary Gold would have liked to get that cap to him a week earlier, against the Maori All Blacks, but Vannes, his club which plays in France’s second-tier professional league, wouldn’t release him. Instead, he booted up for them, suffering a knee injury that’d keep him from international duty.
Hooley planted his flag at fullback in his first three appearances with the team, but he slid into the 10 jersey in MacGinty’s absence, leaving a void. Captain Blaine Scully has plenty of experience at fullback, but he plays exclusively on the wing at Cardiff, and he’s only played fullback sparingly for the USA of late.
Five people had played flyhalf for the USA since Scully last did. Hooley is one. Will Magie, a flyhalf who hadn't played fullback in years, had to against the Maori, but only because Luke Hume, who was slated to start, tore his hamstring last minute. The other three, Josh Whippy, Mike Te’o and Dylan Audsley, are all injured. So Scully starts, and then he exits the game with a nose injury in the opening half, never to return.
For the second week in a row, Gold had to make a last-minute switch to the starting lineup. This time he had to swap Hanco Germishuys for John Quill for an injury.
So the USA, without its two best players, without its best flyhalf, without its top two scrumhalves, without its four most-recent fullbacks, with a late lineup change, losing its captain early and having to go without another captain altoether in Augspurger, did something no USA team ever had before.
Samoa is down. There’s no arguing that. The game pivoted on a handful of fortuitous plays – a pair of intercept tries, a last-second kick. If the ball bounces another way on one of them, the USA loses.
But that’s how big games are won, in the small margins. And in the five matches prior, those small margins favored Samoa. Just like they favored Scotland every time until the last. Work honestly enough long enough, and eventually those small margins get smaller and go your way. That’s the cliché concept of ‘learning to win’ decoded. First, close the gap where there are big margins; if you can’t scrum, fix the scrum. The Eagles have spent a lot of time in this stage.
Then comes competing to within a few plays and those small margins of victory, resulting in painful losses. The Eagles have lived here more recently, evidenced by a three-point loss to Ireland in ‘13, a four-point loss to Italy in ‘16, a 10-point loss to the Maori in ‘13, and seemingly countless one-or-two-score losses to Fiji, Samoa and Tonga along the way.
Sprinkled in were a few setbacks, like a 55-19 loss to Ireland in ’17 or even the 59-22 loss to the Maori earlier this month. The track to success isn’t linear.
In close games you’re not supposed to win, the pressure is different. But with every attempt, you learn a little more how to cope in that environment, and eventually back-to-back draws with Argentina XV from ’16 and ’17 turn into a 17-10 win in 2018. A 23-point loss to Scotland in 2015 and nine-point loss to Samoa in 2016 become 30-29 wins in 2018.
For the Eagles to be able to flip those results on Samoa with so many excuses built-in makes the result significantly more impressive. The margins are small and getting smaller.