USA Finishes Pacific Rim Season in Fine Style
(Berkeley, California) 15 July 1996 -- There's lots to admire and still more to do following the USA National Rugby Team's second-place finish in the inaugural Pacific Rim Rugby Championship tournament. League leaders in several categories, the Eagles clearly benefited from the first regular international schedule the team has ever enjoyed.
The nine-week campaign began on a high-note with a 19-12 win over Canada in San Francisco. Wing Vaea Anitoni notched the May 11 game's only try, but the Eagles might have tallied further in downing their archrivals. One week later in Vancouver, center Tomasi Takau and Anitoni again scored tries, but an injury-time goal robbed the US of victory. The 24-20 setback not only sent the young squad into a slight tailspin but ultimately cost them the championship. Canada finished 5-1, the US 3-3.
Traveling to Hong Kong on June 9 and Tokyo on June 16, the USA squad learned some of the difficulties associated with playing on the road. Despite terrific heat, a rash of injuries, and a lopsided penalty count, the Eagles led Hong Kong from wire to wire, but again surrendered an injury-time score and fell 22-19. Meeting Japan the following week, the US looked sluggish in losing 24-18. Though both games might have been won, they indicated important problems with retaining possession and tactical decisionmaking.
Head coach Jack Clark responded by returning to the basics while also changing captains, replacing Andre Bachelet with Dan Lyle. Bachelet retained his role as the starting halfback. Clark further continued to search for fresh, youthful faces during the course of a season that saw more than thirty-five players train with the national team, nine of them for the first time. Twenty-five earned caps, seven for the first time.
The team responded. Avenging their last-second loss, the US produced blitzed Hong Kong 42-23 in San Francisco on June 29. Anitoni collected two tries while flyhalf Matt Alexander totaled 22 points with a try and seven of ten placekicking. The season finale on July 6 brought more of the same. Leading Japan 17-5 at half, the Eagles erupted for nine second-half tries to wax the visitors 74-5.
Anitoni exploded for a team record of four tries in one game, boosting his league-best total to ten (in the process setting a team record for tries in a year). The offensive outburst also pushed the Eagles' cumulative try count to the top of the Pacific Rim charts. Garnering another try and 24 points in all, Alexander finished third in individual scoring, while Anitoni came in fifth. The US wound up second to Canada in cumulative points scored and in tries and points allowed.
Without question, Anitoni was the team's most valuable player. Always dangerous on attack, the 25-year-old resident of San Mateo, California, was also a sure defender. Overcoming a slow start, flyhalf Alexander became a steady goalkicker beginning with the Asian trip and also learned to use the ball well. Tomasi Takau shone until sidelined by injury.
Flanker Lyle was the pick of the forwards, but the young second-row group of Luke Gross, Alec Parker, and Cliff Vogl too earned good reviews. Hobbled by injuries, backrowers Richard Tardits and Rob Lumkong struggled before returning to form against Japan in San Francisco, while the front row situation remains fluid.
Speaking from his Berkeley office, coach Clark labeled the tournament a success. "It provided our team with invaluable lessons," he noted, "the type that only a consistent competition allows for.
"From a technical point of view, we played solid team defense, controlled our position on the field extremely well, and dominated lineouts. I thought our inexperience showed most in our finishing and in our inability to navigate some of the refereeing. Our goalkicking could also have been more consistent.
"All in all, the competition was a godsend. There were difficult streaks but without question we finished a better team."
The USA now takes several weeks off before reassembling to compete in the Pan American Championship tournament this September in Toronto. The difficult field will include Uruguay, powerful Argentina, and archrival Canada.