USA Draws against Portugal in final Rugby World Cup Qualifier, miss qualification on points differential

It was a tough fight on the pitch for the Men’s Eagles on Saturday night, where an expired-time penalty goal by Portugal tied the teams 16-16 after the USA took the 3-point lead in the 60’ minute. Qualification victory goes to Portugal on points differential.

The final match of the 2023 Rugby World Cup Qualification Tournament came to a showdown between the USA and Portugal after both teams reached the final fixture with blow out victories over Kenya and Hong Kong. It was an intense and chippy night with nerves and excitement, given the last ticket to the Rugby World Cup was on the line. Despite the pressure and implications, the 32 Men’s Eagles here in Dubai played and prepared to the greatest extent. The next year will look a little different than expected for this team and for the USA Rugby organization, however one aspect that will never be in review is the tenacity each coach and player committed to over the last year since Rugby World Cup qualifiers first began. A replay of the match is available on The Rugby Network.

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Match Recap

Emotions were running high from the first second, with both teams participating in a little extracurricular chatter and conceding penalties early. The USA relied on the kicking game in the first half, AJ MacGinty with the kick and chase to the corner a few times and penalty goals by the Captain to put USA points on the board.

Both the Eagles and Os Lobos earned yellow cards in the first half. A dangerous tackle sent Nate Augspurger to the sin bin for 10 minutes, where Portugal took advantage of the time with attacking power, breaking a few tackles to tally the first try. Knowing that attacking power, the Eagles had to win the territory and possession battle to keep the ball out of the striking hands of their backs. Defensively, the USA did well to keep tension and contain the outside speed, but they missed several scoring opportunities in the first half with turnovers near Portugal’s 5-meter line.

The second yellow card of the game went to Portugal’s José Lima for offside entries. With the USA at the advantage, the pressure was on. The Eagles forced a few penalties and earned opportunities for penalty goals. MacGinty scored two more kicks, but one sailed just wide. Portugal earned one penalty kick, and the match went to halftime 9-10 with Portugal at the lead.

Heading into the second half, both teams had some scrappy plays. Portugal earned three penalty kick opportunities, but only one was successful. The second half saw lots of rugby played at midfield between the 10 meter lines, with both teams going to the air and trying to be tactical.

It finally paid off for the USA, with Kapeli Pifeleti scoring a decisive try after some great phases. MacGinty’s conversion sailed through, and the Eagles were finally in the lead for the first time since the beginning of the game. They needed to retain possession to keep the lead, and the Eagles did well to stay clinical and patient with the ball. Another yellow card to Portugal gave the USA advantage up until the 70-minute mark.

The three-point difference put everything on the line in the last 10 minutes of heart-pumping play. The USA continued going through phases with composure, knowing any error could sway the game against them. A penalty advantage would be called in Portugal’s favor, with only seconds left. Continuing play, Os Lobos went for a drop goal to tie it, but the attempt bounced off the posts. With the lingering penalty advantage, Player of the Match Samuel Marques slotted a dead straight penalty goal and send his team to their only second Rugby World Cup.


Head Coach Gary Gold on today’s performance:

“Firstly, congrats to Portugal on a well fought game. We expected a challenge and they provided that. There aren’t many words for how gutted this group feels right now. Both teams played an intense 80 minutes with high emotions, this one just didn’t fall our way. I can’t overstate how proud I am of the players and staff, regardless of result. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves and our capabilities over the last year when the qualification journey first began, and these harsh lessons are ones we’ll lean on going forward. This last tour was special as we had a number of new players out their hand up, debut on the world stage and provide some promise for the future.   We definitely left some point opportunities on the field tonight, which is always a tough reflection in a close game. However, there was no effort spared by the guys tonight and from that we can walk away knowing we gave it our all."

Captain AJ MacGinty Post Game:

“We worked extremely hard the last 8 weeks when we came together. Prior to that, there was a lot of sacrifice and everything to put us in the best possible position to qualify here tonight. It was seconds away from us, and Portugal came back. It’s our second time tasting that sort of defeat. It’s sore, but we gave it our best shot. Credit to Portugal for battling back there and working their way up the field. I’m really proud of the squad, the group, all the coaches for the amount of time that’s gone into putting us in the best position for this. It was almost there.”

Going forward, the planning stage for the 2023 Men’s 15s will pivot from Rugby World Cup preparation to optimizing more time on the pitch together and development of a core squad for 2027. A majority of the players have the new Major League Rugby season to look forward to in February, a positive note for each and every player looking to improve and target the Australia Rugby World Cup. Beyond that, USA Rugby will continue to work with the global game to formulate regular fixtures for this team, with quality competition.


USA MEN'S EAGLES ROSTER | USA vs PORTUGAL

FIRST NAME CLUB CAPS
1. David Ainu'u Toulouse (FRA) 12
2. Kapeli Pifeleti Saracens (ENG) 10
3. Paul Mullen Utah Warriors 30
4. Greg Peterson Newcastle Falcons (ENG) 39
5. Cam Dolan NOLA Gold 63
6. Viliami Helu Rugby ATL 3
7. Cory Daniel Old Glory DC 3
8. Jamason Fa'anana-Schultz Old Glory DC 9
9. Ruben De Haas Saracens (ENG) 28
10. AJ MacGinty (C) Bristol Bears 35
11. Nate Augspurger San Diego Legion 36
12. Paul Lasike Utah Warriors 22
13. Bryce Campbell MLR 44
14. Christian Dyer Houston SaberCats 11
15. Mitch Wilson New England Free Jacks 3
16. Mikey Sosene-Feagai Agen (FRA) 9
17. Jack Iscaro Old Glory DC 2
18. Nate Sylvia San Diego Legion 3
19. Benjamin Bonasso Rugby New York 5
20. Tesimoni Tonga'uiha NOLA Gold 6
21. Chris Mattina MLR Yet to debut
22. Luke Carty MLR 10
23. Tavite Lopeti Seattle Seawolves 7


USA MEN’S EAGLES STAFF

Head Coach | Gary Gold

Assistant Coach | Mario Ledesma

Assistant Coach | Steve Brett

Assistant Coach | John Plumtree

Head Strength & Conditioning Coach | Huw Bevan

Strength & Conditioning Coach | Calvin Morris

Analyst | Jimmy Harrison

Head Physiotherapist | Kristen Douhan

Physiotherapist | Ron Klingensmith

Sports Massage Therapist | Daliah Hurwitz

Team Doctor | Marc Kowalsky

Team Manager | Oscar Alvarez


USA MEN’S EAGLES MATCH SCHEDULE

USA vs Kenya

Sunday, Nov 6 | (W) 68-14

Live replay on The Rugby Network

USA vs Hong Kong

Saturday, Nov 12 | (W) 49-7

Live replay on The Rugby Network

USA vs Portugal

Friday, Nov 18 | (D) 16-16

Live on The Rugby Network

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