In preparation for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Rugby Rain Man Collective member Ryan Day will provide a match review and analysis of all the Rugby World Cup games in USA Rugby history.
FORT WAYNE, IN – The USA’s last pool match of the first Rugby World Cup was an eliminator vs. England, with the winner advancing to the quarterfinals. The venue was the Concord Oval in Sydney, a larger stadium than the Eagles’ previous venue of Ballymore. This, coupled with the RWC being in infantile stages, resulted in a lot of empty seats.
Following a quiet start, England control their own lineout inside the U.S. 22 followed by a missed drop goal attempt by fly half Rob Andrew. (Andrew is currently England’s Director of Professional Rugby.) The following 22 drop doesn’t gain much ground, and England stay at the Americans’ half of the field. With England threatening close to the try line, English flanker Peter Winterbottom tries a chip over the top but Eagle scrum half Mike Saunders is able to touch the ball down. After the clearance, there’s a lineout penalty against the Eagles. English fullback Jon Webb clangs it off the goalpost, the Eagles make a mess of it, and England gets a scrum. However, from the resulting play, the Eagles are still able to clear the ball out of there. England finally get their first points at 10 minutes from a less challenging penalty attempt for Webb after an obstruction call.
The first part of the game follows this pattern of the Eagles doing a good job containing on defense but making too many mistakes on offense to be capable of doing anything to challenge England. England, for their part, lack the killer instinct shown by Australia in the last match. Unfortunately for the Americans, England brutalize the Eagles scrum just as badly as Australia did.
After a run through multiple hands to run down field, England are able to get a lineout inside the 5-meter line when the Eagles put the ball in touch there. From the ensuing lineout, Winterbottom scores a try at 22 minutes. Webb converts from the sideline.
The TV announcer makes what, in hindsight, is a hilarious comment. He says that one thing that holds back the U.S. is that people do not pick up the game until they are in their late teens and early 20’s, mostly because it’s not played in the high schools. But, he adds, that is changing now (1987) because kitting a rugby player is much cheaper than kitting a gridiron player. That entire thought could just as easily have been said twenty-five years later.
England challenge the Eagles’ end of the field again. Off another chip kick, fullback Ray Nelson calls a mark to relieve the pressure. The Eagles shortly thereafter get whistled for another lineout penalty, which Webb punishes with another penalty to make it England 12-0.
The first real challenge to the England try line of the game occurs after the Eagles win a lineout near midfield, grind away some territory, and Eagle fly half Joe Clarkson sends up a garryowen right in front of the posts that earns an Eagle scrum. England though suffocate the Eagles backline once they get the ball after the scrum goes backward. Off another scrum in the same area, there’s a great combination move from Clarkson to center Tommy Vinick, who does a switch with the #8 Brian Vizard. Vizard, one of the more offensively adept Eagles in the ’87 World Cup, gets to about the 5-meter line but an errant pass only finds an English clearance kick. For the few times they have been able to make linebreaks, Vizard has normally been a feature. (After his playing days were over, Vizard featured as a rugby color commentator for U.S. rugby broadcasts.)
Halftime comes with England only up 12-0 to the credit of the U.S. defense. The halftime commentary focuses on the scrum deficiency of the Eagles but remarks on their solid tackling ability. The commentators also criticize the English backs being static, especially Rob Andrew’s play at fly half saying he’s taking the ball standing still.
Second half starts with a Clarkson punt that Webb recovers, England get an overlap that ends up in the hands of the English captain, wing Mike Harrison, who runs all the way to the 5-meter line. England are more threatening this half. English flanker Gary Rees has a try stopped by a tackle from Eagle flanker Steve Finkel who forces a knock-on. However, the Eagles lose their own scrum, and Winterbottom scores his second try of the match. Webb converts; England leads 18-0. The guest analyst here – Colin Scotts, a union convert who became the first Australian drafted into the NFL and had signed for the St. Louis Cardinals football team prior to this match – remarks that one area of gridiron influence in the Eagles’ play has been in their tackling and how low they get going into tackles. (This definitely would not be said by a rugby commentator today.)
Not long after the kickoff, Webb adds a penalty due to an Eagle hand in the ruck to make it 21-0. Later, with not much going on for the Eagles in defense or England in offense, off an England scrum the U.S. center Kevin Higgins picks up a knocked-on ball from the English backline that looks initially dangerous, but he is whistled offsides. Webb scores another penalty to make it 24-0.
Later, with play moving from one side of the field to the other, the ball goes through the hands of a number of English players while several Eagles slide off their tackles as fatigue sets in. The result is Harrison‘s fourth try of the tournament for England. Webb’s kick hits the upright.
Fighting back for pride, the Eagles win a penalty at the 22 in front of the posts. Instead of going for 3, Clarkson takes the tap, and throws to prop Rick Bailey. Bailey feigns a forward move to one side that catches England napping, and the ball goes the opposite direction through a few hands to Mike Purcell who walks a tightrope down the sideline to score the try. It’s a splendid little set piece move from the Eagles and Purcell is excited to make the score. From the sideline, Nelson makes the kick to end his tournament a perfect 7-for-7 kicking as well as scoring two tries. Shortly after, the Eagles threaten again as they win an offensive 5-meter scrum. Vizard takes off the back and dishes to Saunders but it’s a forward pass. England, off the resultant scrum, make a poor clearance leading to an Eagle lineout close to the try line. This time the Eagles opt to throw wide but center Gary Hein knocks on, dashing their hopes of scoring another try.
Near full time, Webb kicks a grubber that Harrison recovers. The forwards then pick-and-go around the unsettled American defense. Lock Wade Dooley touches down to score and Webb converts to end the game in England’s favor 34-6. That would be all for English celebration though; in the quarterfinals, they will go on to lose to Wales 16-3.
For the Eagles, they could head back across the Pacific definitely proud of their win against Japan, and the spirited performances put up against Australia and England. However, the scrum was a nightmare in all three games and it has continued to be through most of American rugby history since. The discipline issues that almost cost them the game vs. Japan were resolved against Australia, but came back somewhat in the England match. Defensively, the match vs. England was the Eagles’ best performance – they were only down 12 at halftime when offensively the U.S. had done nothing. Overall, the Eagles could be happy with their results, and look forward to another World Cup in four years’ time, this one hosted by the Five Nations in the Northern Hemisphere.
USA – England – June 3, 1987 – Concord Oval – Sydney, Australia
USA: 1. Rick Bailey, 2. John Everett, 3. Neal Brendel, 4. Bob Causey, 5. Ed Burlingham (capt.), 6. Gary Lambert, 7. Steve Finkel, 8. Brian Vizard, 9. Mike Saunders, 10. Joe Clarkson, 11. Gary Hein, 12. Tommy Vinick, 13. Kevin Higgins, 14. Mike Purcell, 15. Ray Nelson
England: 1. Gareth Chilcott, 2. Graham Dawe, 3. Gary Pearce, 4. Wade Dooley, 5. Steve Bainbridge, 6. Peter Winterbottom, 7. Gary Rees, 8. Dean Richards, 9. Richard Hill, 10. Rob Andrew, 11. Mark Bailey, 12. Jamie Salmon, 13. Fran Clough, 14. Mike Harrison (capt.), 15. Jon Webb
England 34 (12)
Tries: Winterbottom (2), Harrison, Dooley
Conversions: Webb (3/4)
Penalties: Webb (4/5)
Drop Goals: Andrew (0/1)
USA 6 (0)
Conversions: Nelson (1/1)
My Man of the Match: Peter Winterbottom, England
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