By Brian Lowe (RugbyLeaguePlanet.com)
On a warm Saturday afternoon in Jacksonville, Florida, the Hawks came back from a halftime deficit, and while playing a man down for more than 50 minutes, to punch their ticket to the 2017 RLWC.
“Courageous and stylish,” is how USA head coach Brian McDermott summed up the win.
In what was an absorbing contest that was an arm wrestle for the entire game, the Hawks outscored the Wolverines by eight tries to four, delighting their legion of loyal fans at the University of North Florida’s Hodges Stadium.
There were four lead changes and two players bagged hat-tricks, USA forward Danny Howard and Canadian five-eighth Ryley Jacks.
It was a physical contest marked by plenty of big hits in contact matched by equally rugged defense by both sides.
In a game of quarters, the US stuck to its game plan of taking it up the middle through the forwards and forcing Canadian mistakes and that strategy paid off with the Americans scoring two quick fire tries by center Taylor Alley and wing Taylor Howden to take an 8-0 lead inside the opening eight minutes.
The Wolverines hit back in the 19th minute with a score by lock Jamie Kelly, converted by Steve Piatek, to make it 8-6 in favor of the hosts.
The Canadians went in again minutes later when Jacks scored the first of his three tries, again converted by Piatek, for a 12-8 scoreline. It came from some unrelenting pressure and enterprising play by the Wolverines that saw the US bend, but not crack.
At around that point of the match, Hawks’ fullback Corey Makelim was sent off by referee Robert Hicks, allegedly for swearing, leaving the US to see out the game with 12 men.
Inside the last five minutes of the first half, the home team stepped up the pressure in attack and it paid dividends with Howard crossing for the first of his tries. It was converted by Howden, the only successful kick at goal all day by the Hawks, and they were back in front at 14-12.
Then on the stroke of halftime, a little bit of Jacks magic resulted in the Canadian five-eighth going in for his second score.
Money man Piatek was good with the points after and the visitors took an 18-14 lead into the main break, which couldn’t come soon enough for both teams.
In a repeat of the start of the game, again it was the USA scoring first when Howden finished off an exciting passage of play that saw just about every player touch the ball as they swung it from one side of the field to the other.
The US then dominated proceedings for the ensuing 20 minutes in which they banged in three more tries by Alley, Howard and Ryan Burroughs to extend their lead to 30-18.
The latter score followed a scintillating 40-meter open field burst by center Burroughs in the previous set.
As the match moved into the final 15 minutes, one could have been forgiven for thinking Canada was virtually dead and buried, but as they showed against Jamaica, they can never be written off.
That man Ryley Jacks, who was now playing on a dud ankle following a knock in a tackle earlier in the half, produced another moment of magic as he ducked under defenders from close range to complete his scoring trifecta.
Piatek, of course, added the extras for a 30-24 scoreline, setting up a thrilling final few minutes.
For the Canadians it was a must-win game and they gave themselves every opportunity to stay in the hunt as the clock wound down, but it wouldn’t be a fairytale ending for them.
The Hawks, who only needed a tie to qualify, put the final nail in the Wolverines’ coffin in the final minute, and perhaps fittingly, it was Danny Howard who dragged a tackler with him as he crashed over the line.
The conversion was wayward, but it didn’t matter, as the US ran out winners by ten points to advance to the Rugby League World Cup for the second straight time.
“I can’t speak highly enough about their effort and their work rate,” a delighted USA head coach Brian McDermott told RugbyLeaguePlanet.
“They’ve done everything I’ve asked of them and while today wasn’t the most glitzy of performances, it certainly was done in style.
“To beat a well orchestrated and a well coached Canada team, who had beaten the USA in the two Colonial Cups just recently, to do that with 12 men for a large chunk of the game I think that’s something they need to be very proud of.”
Both teams came into the game with one goal in mind, winning, and they played accordingly.
“We made it hard for ourselves,” said Hawks captain Mark Offerdahl. “I’ve never won a game like that with 12 men, that’s crazy.
“Some of the boys had never played minutes like that. Some of the urgency and boys turning up for each other, I know it’s old clichés, but it’s crazy.
“Last time we cruised into the World Cup. There were some big scorelines. This time we’ve got a lot more American boys playing, which is awesome for the development of the game.
“These guys are going to go back to their clubs and take what they’ve learned off B Mac (McDermott) hopefully spread it and a few more teams pop up and boys get enthusiastic about the 2017 World Cup and try and make it.”
From Canada’s standpoint, yes it’s a big disappointment, but according to head coach Aaron Zimmerle, there were some positive takeaways.
“It was all in, you had to win,” said Zimmerle. “Unfortunately we were the side that didn’t come up with the result.
“I thought there were periods in the game where it was our opportunity to take control of the match and hopefully then finish on top, but credit to America they really stood up.
“Some of their go-to players were able to pull out the big plays when needed. I thought they capitalized well late when we were trying to force the issue and we’d make an error.
“But as this whole tournament has shown, every time we’re down and out and I think maybe that’s it, they find a way to claw back into the game.”
Final score USA 34 – Canada 24
USA tries: Danny Howard (3), Taylor Alley (2), Taylor Howden (2), Ryan Burroughs Conversions: Howden (1)
Canada tries: Ryley Jacks (3), Jamie Kelly Conversions: Steve Piatek (4)
Referee: Robert Hicks (UK)