U.S. throttles Spain, puts scare into Fiji in rugby tournament

This wasn’t about a moral victory, the chance to be satisfied with coming close.

No, the U.S. thought it let one get away Friday night. A chance to upset Samoa instead turned into a five-point loss.

The Eagles set out Saturday to do more than claim moral victories, and they achieved at least half of their goal.

They began the day by beating Spain 22-7 to amazingly, nearly inconceivably, make their way into the Cup semifinals. Then the Eagles came a missed conversion from forcing sudden death against Fiji, losing the upset bid 21-19 before a record crowd of 31,228 at Sam Boyd Stadium.

Now the U.S. will finish the USA Sevens rugby tournament at least 13th in the world standings and could move up to the magic No. 12. The top 12 teams are guaranteed participation in all nine Sevens World Series tournaments next season, so success today is crucial.

“It’s important,” U.S. coach Alexander Magleby said. “We have to constantly fight the rest of the season. Every point counts.”

The U.S. plays Canada in a Plate semifinal at 10:48 a.m. The winner plays the victor of the Scotland-Wales game for the Plate title at 1:35 p.m., which would be for fifth place.

Fiji meets New Zealand at 11:32 a.m. in one Cup semifinal, and defending tournament champion Samoa faces South Africa at 11:54 a.m. in the other. The championship is at 2:25 p.m.

This tournament didn’t begin well for the U.S. when Australia routed the Eagles 26-7 on Friday. But that one-sided defeat seemed to jolt the U.S., which responded by nearly surprising Samoa later that night, only to lose, 12-7.

“We should’ve had that win,” said Luke Hume, who scored two tries against Fiji. “We came focused this morning.”

The large, supportive crowd helped, Hume said, and the turnout broke the record of 30,112 that showed up for Saturday’s play in last year’s tournament.

“The effort was there, and more importantly the guys stuck to the game plan, and we kept our focus, which was good to see,” Magleby said. “When you do that, you have a chance.”

The U.S. didn’t seem to have much chance to make the Cup quarterfinals, needing Australia to lose by a wide margin and then beat Spain convincingly to win a three-way tiebreaker.

The U.S. entered the day trailing in point differential by 33 to Australia and 27 to Spain.

Then, stunningly, the pieces began to fall into place. Australia lost 28-7 to Samoa, meaning the U.S. had to beat Spain by at least 14 points to make the Cup round.

Spain scored first, taking a 7-0 lead. The U.S. then dominated, with speedy Carlin Isles scoring two tries in the first half. Folau Niua missed both conversion kicks, however, holding the U.S. to a 10-7 lead.

After the U.S. extended its lead in the second half to 15-7, but failed on another conversion kick (this one by Shalom Suniula), the Eagles’ hopes came down to whether they could score after the horn sounded.

In the extra time, Nick Edwards scored a try, and needing the conversion to advance, this time Niua made it for the key margin of victory.

The revitalized Eagles then came close to beating Fiji, with Hume scoring a try after the horn. Niua, though, was faced with a tough angle on the conversion from the 22-meter mark on the far left side, and he pulled the ball to the right.

It was a tough loss, but the overall quality of play convinced Hume the U.S. could do more than simply move up the world standings.

“We’ve got a great team,” Hume said. “There’s not a team that we can’t beat.

“Our goal is be in the Cup finals every week. I think for the U.S. team in the past, a couple of years ago, that was an unrealistic goal, but it has definitely changed. We expect that from each other. It’s good to be in the top eight, but we can be No. 1, and that’s what we’re striving for.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.