At FedEx Field, just outside Washington, America set out its stall to host the Rugby World Cup. The crowd cheered, the Star-Spangled Banner flew . . . and New Zealand scored many tries.
That was predictable and USA Rugby, and perhaps World Rugby, are thinking bigger-picture. Through the rosiest spectacles possible this was a fleeting taste of things to come. It was also, if more like a training video than any sort of contest, a showcase of pure All Black attack.
USA Rugby reckoned on an attendance of 50,000 – and got about 10,000 less than that. Nonetheless, most of the fans came from a flourishing American subculture, proudly wearing the colours of school, college, club or even service academy. In a fierce curtain-raiser, Army beat Navy 24-17.
The pre-game ceremonials, part of any international, were touched by still-fresh grief. From the Americans there was silence for Kathy Flores, a great player and coach who died this week. From the All Blacks, before the haka, there was a pause of 11 seconds to honour the Maori wing Sean Wainui, killed in a car crash at just 25. Bryce Campbell, the US captain, laid a No 11 shirt on the grass.
After that Campbell’s Eagles covered every blade … while chasing All Black shadows.
Because the game was outside the autumn Test window, the Americans could not field players employed by overseas clubs. It was not surprising that a team entirely selected from Major League Rugby could not contain an All Blacks outfit with 374 caps and four World Cup winners’ medals on the bench. Dane Coles, Sam Cane, TJ Perenara, Anton Lienert-Brown and Beauden Barrett, twice world player of the year. All came on and did their bit for the havoc. Three Eagles had not played a single Test. So it goes.
As it happens, the writer who made that fatalistic phrase his own, Kurt Vonnegut, once reported on rugby at Cornell University. He called it “a damned good game, faster than football and harder than soccer”. Making the best of things, the All Blacks did their best to prove him right.
The flanker Luke Jacobson scored the first try within 30 seconds of kick-off. The pack set the ball up, the backs moved it and the full-back Damian McKenzie slipped the Eagles defence. The procession proceeded from there.
Which tries to pick out? There were too many, the Eagles pulled out of shape, a tackle missed, the line left open. The sixth try, before 25 minutes were up, might’ve been the best: the fly-half Richie Mo’unga chipped and the wing Will Jordan caught it and passed the ball back to Mo’unga. Half-tackled, he drunk-waltzed his way to the line.
The slightly bizarre ease of it summed up the unfolding mismatch. So did the try, the eighth, which brought up 50 points. A slashing break from Jordan, a gallop home by Angus Ta’avao … the tighthead prop.
There were more tries, of course, even as the All Blacks took their foot off the gas.
“The reality,” said their coach, Ian Foster, “is a bit of looseness came into our game, particularly trying too much.”
They still passed 100 points.
Oh, to have such problems. In the circumstances, the US did well to stick at it and to score twice themselves, either side of half-time. Just before the break a bit of confusion near a ruck was enough for Nate Augspurger, the scrum-half, to zip through and beat McKenzie to score. In the second half the wing Ryan Matyas did well to ride Jordan’s tackle – which pulled his shorts half-down – for five points in the corner.
Gary Gold, the Eagles coach, was understandably downcast but ready to reach for such positives.
“I choose to be a person that will look for the good in what we’ve done,” he said. “And I think they were passages where there was some good stuff and we’ll take a little bit of encouragement that, you know, for those small passages of play we were able to put some pressure on them and ultimately score two tries.”
They were the first ever by American men against New Zealand. They may be the last for a while.