Don’t think for a second that the midsummer, Rugby World Cup off-year test between the United States Eagles and Russian national teams didn’t mean anything Saturday night.
Before the match at Bonney Field, players from both squads could be heard singing their respective national anthems in full throat, with arms around their countrymen and slightly swaying back and forth in unison. Americans and Russians may play professionally for teams in both hemispheres, but in Sacramento, the Cold War was rekindled on a hot night at Cal Expo.
It was the bombs off AJ MacGinty’s right foot that burst in the warm night air and gave proof the Eagles are still superior to the Bears in a 25-0 U.S. victory.
The Eagles, ranked 15th in the world, have not lost to the Bears in seven matches. In their previous meeting, the Eagles won easily 28-7 in a 2013 test at Allianz Park in England.
MacGinty nailed five drop goals (kicks) in the only first-half scoring. He saved his best kick for his fifth as time expired in the first half. MacGinty ripped a 27-meter shot from an extreme angle near the right sideline. Mike Te’o added a late try at the 65-minute mark for a 23-0 lead.
Entering Saturday, the Eagles had lost their last three matches, all by a try or less. Their most recent game was June 18 in San Jose, where they lost to No. 13 Italy 24-20. Saturday’s match against No. 21 Russia ended the series. Many of the Eagles players, including Blaine Scully and Thretton Palamo, will travel around the globe to prepare for the 2016-17 season.
San Jose’s Todd Clever earned his 68th international cap for the Eagles on Saturday, passing Mike MacDonald as the all-time appearance leader for the national team. Clever made his Eagles debut in 2003 and has played for the U.S. Olympic sevens.
Clever said when new coach John Mitchell invited him to return to the Eagles, he initially didn’t want to be the captain and instead wanted to put his head down and work hard to convince Mitchell and the Eagles he still had plenty left in his well-traveled body.
“Getting the record has always been more about the Eagles than myself,” Clever said. “It’s been a bumpy road. I’ve played for seven head coaches and with more than 200 Eagles players now. It’s remarkable that I’m back and what an honor to put the red, white and blue uniforms on again.”
It’s been a bumpy road. I’ve played for seven head coaches and with more than 200 Eagles players now. It’s remarkable that I’m back and what an honor to put the red, white and blue uniforms on again.
Clever said he comes from a patriotic family, and several members of his family were in the stands in full patriotic regalia, including younger brother Chris, who dressed as an astronaut.
“He dressed like that because we beat the Russians to the moon,” Clever said.
Clever was the fourth-youngest Eagles player to earn a cap when he played against Argentina in the 2003 Pan American Championship. The Eagles’ co-captain with Sacramento’s Scully also played in the 2007 and 2011 Rugby World Cups. Clever made 24 tournament appearances for the Eagles’ Rugby Sevens squad from 2004 to 2009 and was a three-time college All-American at Nevada.
Palamo started for the Eagles at inside center. Palamo grew up in Woodland and graduated from Davis High. He started playing club rugby in high school for San Francisco Golden Gate and the Sacramento Lions and became one of the youngest players ever for the Eagles when, at 19, he earned his first international cap for the Eagles at the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France.
At Utah, Palamo walked onto the football team as a freshman and played so well in helmets and pads that he earned a scholarship his last three years. Palamo was a member of the USA Under-20s at the 2008 International Rugby Board’s Junior World Championships and plays for Saracens of the Aviva Premiership, but he was on loan to the London Irish last season.
It’s just surreal though to be standing here, watching how Blaine (Scully) and Clever work. I roomed with Clever these last few days and learned so much. Man, it feels good to be in this uniform representing my country.
Sacramento Express player Langilangi Haupeakui earned his first cap for the Eagles after impressing Mitchell and his staff during workouts at Jesuit High leading up to Saturday’s match. His Express teammates are in Denver preparing to face the Professional Rugby Organization’s co-leaders, the Denver Stampede, on Sunday.
Haupeakui is a San Mateo native and played football for College of San Mateo. He was a late substitution and got into a near fight with several Russians in the waning moments.
“That stuff is going to happen in rugby. It was no big deal,” said Haupeakui, who has played rugby for only three years. “It’s just surreal though to be standing here, watching how Blaine and Clever work. I roomed with Clever these last few days and learned so much. Man, it feels good to be in this uniform representing my country.”