Everybody had tried to build some grudge into this old cold war special, but it turned out to be almost a model of mutual respect in wet and windy New Plymouth. The USA controlled possession and should have scored more points; Russia defended resolutely from first minute to last. Without the ball, it could have been a lot worse for the newcomers.
Russia were last out of the traps at the World Cup, scheduled to watch while everybody else tucked a game under their belt and launched themselves into the business of supplying answers to the questions posed at a tournament under way. Working on matters raised in round one is easy.
For the newcomers it had been tougher. All the training, talking, twiddling their thumbs, with one big question to face. Could they live at this level?
They need not have fretted so. The USA had played well enough against Ireland to allow their coach, Eddie O’Sullivan, to ponder on what might have been if his new side had been able to garner more set-piece possession against his old. Here, they had all the possession they could use and yet the Eagles could not bury the Bears.
There was a general pattern to the game, with Russia unable to win a lineout, twisted at the scrum, battered in the loose – the prop Mike MacDonald put in a series of all-consuming tackles – but refusing to buckle. They dropped the ball in the horrible conditions on the west coast, but leapt back to their feet and tackled with an equal ferocity.
In the very first minute of their very first World Cup, their loosehead prop Sergey Popov, picked up a charge-down of a kick by Mike Petri, and led an assault on the American line. The defenders infringed and Yury Kushnarev landed the first Russian points. It was quite a historic moment for a sport that had been banned by the tsar, who deemed in 1886 that it was likely to incite riots and demonstrations, and by Stalin, who decreed in 1949 that it was irrelevant to the principles of the Soviet people.
There are backers of the game at government and commercial levels in the modern motherland, who think it is, after all, Russia’s kind of sport. They don’t expect to win the World Cup quite yet, but this was a start. The trouble for both the onlookers from the stand and Popov the prop was that the next time he made contact with the ball was when he caught a rebound of a penalty by Chris Wyles off the post.
That was nearly an hour later. Between Russia’s opening and this lost opportunity for the Americans, the Eagles had almost all the ball. They used it to work their way downfield – it had to be done with a handling game because the kicking on both sides was imperfect. As in pretty rubbish.
And the handling wasn’t too precise either. The Suniula brothers, Roland and Andrew – originally from Pago Pago, capital of that “unincorporated territory” of the USA, American Samoa – both looked lively on the ball, but they couldn’t quite free their real menace, Takudzwa Ngwenya on the wing. And when it did come the way of the flier, originally from Zimbabwe and who once showed Bryan Habana a clean pair of heels on the outside, he dropped it.
Ngwenya incidentally plays club rugby in Biarritz, where it is not often as wet as it was here. After the World Cup Andrew Suniula is going to join Cornish Pirates in Penzance, where it is.
Anyway, with all this ball, the USA levelled the score with a penalty by Chris Wyles, who looked remarkably sharp considering he had been away from international rugby for almost a year. And then they scored a try through the scrum-half Petri, another who buzzed around all night. He was on the end of a fine move and a final pass from Roland Suniula.
It should have marked the start of a tide of points. The handling was never going to improve but the Americans soon took it back off the Russians when they lost it and enjoyed all the territorial gains. But Wyles was off target with his place-kicking and with a drop-goal from close range.
It did not seem to matter because the Russians could not move out of their own half. And Wyles eventually landed three points to make the gap 10 points. Suddenly though, the new kicker, Konstantin Rachkov, landed a penalty and replacement back-row Victor Gresev scattered tacklers and Russia were pressing for a draw at least.
Vladislav Ostroushko had a chance to go forward again – he had been strong in the first half – and the USA were on their heels. They held out for a deserved victory but it meant the spoils of pride were evenly distributed. As the Russian coach, Nikolay Nerush, said afterwards: “We lost the game, but we did not lose ourselves.”
Russia: Klyuchnikov; Ostroushko, Rachkov, Makovetskiy, Artemyev; Kushnarev, Shakirov; Popov (Botvinnikov, 73), Korshunov, Prishchepenko, Voytov, Antonov (Byrnes, 60), Garbuzov (Gresev, 58), Fatakhov, Grachev.
Pens: Kushnarev, Rachkov
USA: Wyles; Ngwenya, Emerick, A Suniula, Paterson (Scully, 38); R Suniula, Petri (Usasz, 67); MacDonald, Biller, Moeakiola (Pittman, 39), Van der Giessen, Smith, Stanfill, Clever, Johnson (LaValla, 66).
Tries: Petri. Cons: R Suniula. Pens: Wyles 2.
Referee D Pearson (RFU).