Update 08/11/2016: This article has been updated to reflect the outcome of the USA-Spain consolation game.
On most days, keeping pace with the No. 1 team in the world and pushing it to its absolute limit might have been enough. Unfortunately, Team USA rugby’s most important game since 1924 is not most days, and the Eagles’ best was not quite good enough to advance past pool play and into the Olympic elimination rounds. Going into a match against Fiji, Team USA needed to win, tie or lose by four points or fewer to advance past pool play, making the final 24-19 scoreline all the more painful. Headed into the Olympics, with the level of play and the stakes so high, fans were constantly reminded that every point mattered — and boy, did they ever.
The Eagles were in a bizarre position of defending a title so old that many of the players’ grandparents weren’t even alive to see it. Having won gold each of the last two times rugby was played at the Olympics, 1920 and 1924, this current crop of American Olympians were technically in the position of being defending champions. Although, last time around, the U.S. played 15s instead of the 7s style being played now.
Play opened against Argentina, against whom the Eagles had suffered a brutal 36-0 loss in May. Down 12-0 in the second half, it looked like Team USA may have had another blowout on its hands, but the team was soon awarded a penalty try, followed up with a try by Cal alumnus Danny Barrett. Both tries were converted, so the Eagles held a late 14-12 advantage, but a shanked kickoff allowed for a last-minute try to give Argentina the dramatic win.
Next up was Brazil, and coach Mike Friday shook up the lineup, taking out Barrett and inserting the NFL’s Nate Ebner, who has made a lot of news as of late by taking the field while still on the New England Patriots’ roster. Ebner scored a try and delivered an NFL-quality late hit in a 26-0 blowout that went the Eagles way.
For the deciding match against Fiji, Friday inserted Barrett back into the lineup and also left Ebner in. Early on, the U.S. looked overmatched against Fiji’s physicality and quickness. Lackadaisical passing was consistently punished by hard hits, and the Eagles couldn’t find much space inside or out. But a flubbed pass gave Barrett just a sliver of room on the outside and he took full advantage of it, beating two defenders with quick hard cuts and sprinting past everyone else from 40 meters out to put the U.S. up 7-0. But the U.S. continued to have a hard time holding onto the ball against Fiji’s vicious hits and was slow setting up its defense after turnovers. Fiji went into halftime with a 12-7 lead, but the U.S. needed to get just one point closer to advance in the Olympic tournament.
The speedy Perry Baker took a try in for the Eagles early in the second half, and a conversion put the U.S. up 14-12. But before you could blink, a missed tackle gave Fiji all the opportunity it needed for a corner try. An impressive score put Fiji back up by the dreaded five-point margin, and soon a penalty by the U.S. gave way to another Fiji goal that looked to be the clincher. But a missed conversion meant that if the U.S. could score a try and convert in the last moments, it would close the gap to three points and advance. A quick pass out of a restart gave Ebner the opportunity to barrel in for a try, and a conversion was all that was left for the U.S. to cap off this back-and-forth episode with a satisfying conclusion. But the two points hanging on Madison Hughes’ leg never came through. And although the rest of the Eagles remained remarkably stoic as they watched their final lifeline miss the uprights, they knew their Olympic journey was over.
The Eagles once again defeated Brazil to book their place in the consolation finals, in which they would defeat Spain by a score of 24-12. But for a U.S. team so close to glory in its first moment back in the spotlight, it feels like a hollow consolation indeed.
Andrew Wild covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected].