(Lautoka, Fiji) 21 July 1998 -- Taking advantage of an inexperienced, mistake-prone backline, the Fiji Warriors raced past USA 'A' 72-10 tonight at Churchill Park, exposing a gap between Eagle veterans and budding hopefuls.
Originally thought to be domestic-based Fijian national squad players, the Warriors looked much more like Southern hemisphere professionals in jumping to a 36-0 halftime lead over the fresh-faced US outfit. Otago Highlanders wing Manasa Bari showed his Super 12 form in scoring two early tries, as the hosts capitalized on poor US line kicking and also basic handling errors in midfield.
Such turnovers not only frustrated US scoring chances but directly led to several Fijian tallies. Among four first-timers in the Eagle lineup, centers Jeff Preston and Geoff Alley suffered a long night. Meanwhile, trying to make up for indifferent Pacific Rim seasons, wings Dan Kennedy and Malakai Delai too looked slow and unsteady defenders.
Young flyhalf Kurt Shuman struggled at the pivot and swapped places at intermission with fullback Chris Morrow, recovering from injury. The move reduced but did not eliminate US errors, as Fiji rattled off three more scores, including one by Leicester flyhalf and Fiji 7s legend Waisale Serervi.
Lock Cliff Vogl then belatedly opened the Eagles' account, and added a second score later in the game, the fitting result of steady US lineout work and improved scrummaging that gave no ground. But the Eagles ultimately had no answer for the Fijians' ability to exploit the turnover, and US 'A' thus became the latest Northern hemisphere outfit to fall to Southern rivals.
Japan-based wing Aisea Tuilevu led the Warriors with three tries. Eight different players scored, from a side with at least eight professionals and deep enough to call New Zealand and Australian provincials off the bench. Previously, the Warriors' best showing was a 36-32 loss to France.
"Naturally we're unhappy with the result," said US coach Jack Clark. "But [in tonight's game] we gathered up all the players who deserved an opportunity, and they were given a chance. Some players came through and others struggled, but the endeavor was exactly what we needed."
Far from derailing the US drive toward next month's qualifiers, "This is exactly what we wanted," Clark said. "We put a relatively inexperienced team against some of the world's best rugby players, with the idea that the experience would benefit our Rugby World Cup campaign. It will."
Tomorrow, the US moves on to Suva for a one-off test at the National Stadium. On Saturday, veterans like flyhalf Mark Williams and centers Ray Green and Juan Grobler will probably get the nod from among the 29-player tour party; only overachieving lock Luke Gross is likely to remain from tonight's outfit, though some will be on the reserves bench.
Number eight Jason Walker will certainly not play. The US 'A' captain left with a suspected broken ankle, but x-rays were negative and Walker could recover to travel to Argentina next month.
United States 'A': Chris Morrow; Malakai Deli, Geoff Alley, Jeff Preston, Dan Kennedy; Kurt Shuman, Kevin Dalzell; Chris Lippert, Kirk Khasigian, Ray Lehner, Luke Gross (Dave Hodges), Cliff Vogl, James Cassidy, Richard Tardits, Jason Walker (c) (Tom Billups).