The result: another Rugby World Cup for the Eagles.
Rallying from a 10-point deficit at the break, Mike Petri put the Americans ahead to stay with a heads-up play and Andrew Suniula scored a pair of tries 2 minutes apart to lead the U.S. to a 32-13 victory Saturday, claiming a spot in the World Cup next year.
The Eagles did a victory lap around the stadium and posed in front of a sign that said it all: “Qualified.”
“We stuck to the game plan and didn't try to do it all at once. Forty minutes is a long time,” American coach Mike Tolkin said. “We chipped away, and eventually the floodgates opened.”
The U.S. took the home-and-home series after the teams tied 27-27 a week earlier at Montevideo. Los Teros still have a chance to qualify through the cross-continent repechage, but their task gets much tougher. They would have to win two series to claim the second-chance spot.
The Americans, on the other hand, have nearly 18 months to prepare for their fifth straight Rugby World Cup appearance. They have never advanced past pool play, which will be their goal when they get to England.
“Now we can use some younger players, build the depth of our squad,” Tolkin said. “When you're still trying to qualify, there's not much room for maneuvering.”
Playing before a boisterous crowd of about 5,000 at Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta, the Eagles fell behind 13-3 at the break. Uruguay took advantage of several penalties against the U.S., which went down two players at one point. Joaquin Prada scored a try in the 22nd penalty while the Americans were short-handed, and Los Teros booted through a couple of penalty kicks.
But the second half was all Eagles. They outscored Uruguay 29-0 on a day that started rainy and blustery, but turned sunny about the time the Americans were blowing it open.
Eric Fry narrowed the margin by powering over for a try in the 46th minute, but it was Petri who really sparked the U.S. with his effort in the 61st. After Uruguay was whistled for a penalty, Petri noticed several of the visiting players turning their backs and trying to catch their breath. He did a quick little kick to himself, and didn't stop running until he dove across the goal line.
“The opportunity came to change the pace,” Petri said with a shrug. “It just worked out.”
The team's captain, Todd Clever, chided Petri for downplaying his quick thinking.
“That was a heads-up play,” Clever said. “He's one of the smartest guys on our team. He saw the gap and how they were a little lazy getting back. Petes,” he said, turning to his teammate, “it was all you.”
Suniula finished off Uruguay with his speed, blowing past a team that simply didn't have the stamina to keep up.
That was quite a change from the first match, when Los Teros squandered a 19-6 lead but scored a late try to tie the Americans.
“We've been training really good, but sometimes players are tired,” Uruguay coach Pablo Lemoine said. “The last 15 minutes in Montevideo was our best 15 minutes of the year. Today, we played terrible.”
While the Eagles have been a regular at the Rugby World Cup, qualifying seven out of eight times, they have just three victories in 21 matches on the biggest stage.
The U.S. has never advanced out of its group. That's the goal this time.
“Why not us?” Tolkin said. “I think we have more depth, and we've been playing a better level of games. There's no reason for us not to be playing to get into the next round. We're not going to back down from anyone.”