SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - The United States posted a confidence-boosting 23-18 win over Japan in the Pacific Nations Cup on Friday.
Less than three months before the same two teams clash at the World Cup, where they are in the same group, the U.S. survived late pressure to record its first win of the tournament.
Japan was threatening to score a late try until New Zealand-born Mick Broadhurst received a yellow card for his adopted country.
The U.S. was beaten in its opening match by Samoa, which retained its unbeaten record on Friday when it drew 30-30 with Fiji, which also remains unbeaten after two matches.
Samoa overcame a 17-point deficit in the second half, and Patrick Faapale struck a last-gasp penalty to level the scores.
Japan coach Eddie Jones went into the match saying he was going to use it as an 80-minute training session so as not to give anything away ahead of the teams’ Oct. 11 clash in Gloucester, England. So from that point of view not too much should be read into the result.
But Jones will be upset at the way his side was unable to adapt to the way the game was refereed, giving away far too many penalties, six of which were kicked by AJ MacGinty.
“We performed well but America were very physical and strong and were more desperate to win,” said captain Kensuke Hatakeyama.
The Eagles also came into the game with problems of their own with ex-captain Todd Clever — formerly with Suntory Sungoliath and NTT Communications Shining Arcs — dumped from the squad for missing two team meetings, but they made much the better start and finish.
With Japan playing an unnatural kicking game and Harumichi Tatekawa’s radar not at 100 percent the hosts dominated territory and possession early on.
And they made the most of it with MacGinty opening the scoring with a penalty in the sixth minute after Japan was penalized for going off its feet at the ruck.
The Irish-born American flyhalf extended the lead 12 minutes later to make it 6-0 before Japan gradually fought its way back into the game with Tatekawa finally getting his kicking game going as he banged over a penalty in the 28th minute.
The Eagles responded almost immediately as MacGinty made the most of yet another Japan infringement to make it 9-3, before Tatekawa again closed the gap to three points in the 36th minute.
The kick seemed to spark Japan into life and Akihito Yamada finished off a superb move by the backs to cross in the corner just before the break as the teams went into the sheds with Japan leading 11-9.
With the Japan scrum raising the intensity, Tatekawa should have extended the lead three minutes into the second half. But the flyhalf pushed the easy kick wide.
The Brave Blossoms, however, bounced back with Ryu Koliniasi Holani finishing off a powerful scrum five minutes later, Tatekawa’s conversion making it 18-9.
But that was as good as it got for Japan with MacGinty’s trusty right foot helping the Eagles pull level as the Brave Blossoms kept infringing, handing the hosts three kickable penalties.
And with their heads up the Eagles pack then put together a textbook rolling maul that saw Andrew Durutalo go over to put the hosts 23-18 up.