Chris Benz and Dave Shireley will be filing dispatches from the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, in the odd moments that they are sober. For a rugby glossary and position guide, click here.
NEW PLYMOUTH, New Zealand—Welcome to what may be your very first game of rugby. I'm going to hold your hand through 80 minutes of USA Eagles-Ireland, which happened Sunday at a wet and windy Stadium Taranaki here in New Plymouth and which wound up being one of the greatest performances in USA Eagles history. What follows is a diary based on both watching the game live and later on DVR.
Pregame: Your correspondent reckons that anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of the 21,000 hardy souls at Stadium Taranaki are supporting the Red, White and Blue. It is 9/11, after all. This morning, the Eagles were invited to a memorial service at St. Andrew's Church in New Plymouth. Many on the U.S. side were moved to tears. (Everyone still remembers Mark Bingham, the long-time rugger from San Francisco who helped take down the hijackers on United 93 over Shanksville, Pa.)
The U.S. team emerge from the tunnel with black armbands around their biceps. As do the Irish. There's a moment of silence, and then an emotional Star-Spangled Banner. Many of the neutral Kiwis in the crowd sing every word.
Now on to the rugby. We've put together a primer on positions and terminology, which you're encouraged to read before we continue. The video below has all the scoring highlights:
Ready? Off we go.
Kickoff: Fresh-faced Ireland fly-half Jonny Sexton kicks off to the Americans. A kickoff must be a drop kick and must travel 10 meters, to the dotted white line called (inventively enough) the 10-meter line.
Unlike football, when a player is tackled in rugby, play does not stop. A ruck is formed over the tackled player, who must release the ball, preferably toward a member of his own team. Players fight for position over the top to secure their own ball.
:08: That pile of struggling humanity? That's a ruck. Scrum-half and all-around nice guy Mike Petri kicks what is called a box kick. Go ahead, snicker away, you dirty bastards.
:30: Sexton attempts a cross-field chip kick to winger Tommy Bowe, who nearly does well to corral it before it slips off his hands into touch. The U.S. will have a line-out in their own half.
1:00: Jonny Sexton passes out down the line to Brian O'Driscoll, a veteran of 114 International matches who's playing his fourth World Cup. He's Ireland's captain, and quite possibly the greatest Irishman to ever play the game. The ball goes out of bounds—into touch, as we say—splashing as it bounces off the wet grass. And the U.S. will have another line-out. Like a throw-in in soccer, line-outs restart play when the ball goes out of bounds. Each team forms parallel lines, at right angles to the sideline, of between two and seven men, spaced one meter apart. The team throwing in the ball decides how many men to put into their line-out, and the defending team follows suit. The line-out forms five meters from the touch line, and ends 10 meters back from there. The ball must be thrown in by the hooker straight between the two lines, and the teams lift their players high in the air to take the ball. Teams have set line-out plays, which gives the throwing team the advantage of knowing where and to whom the ball is going.
The U.S. knocks the ball on. The ball must never move forward out of a player's hand, whether it is a pass or a dropped ball. When it happens, it's called a knock-on, and the other team resets play with the put into their own scrum. Scrum in French is "melee," which is a pretty good description of the action in the trenches. The scrum-half must put the ball into the tunnel formed between the front row, after the referee shouts out, "Crouch, touch, pause, engage!"
2:50: The U.S. is dominated during this scrum. They're driven back, and the scrum collapses, which is a penalty. When a penalty occurs, the offended team has four options: to ask for a scrum; to tap the ball off a foot and run on; to kick for touch, with the kicking team then getting throw into the line-out; or to kick a penalty goal (worth three points), which Sexton is lining up for now.
3:40: Sexton misses the kick, giving the U.S. a 22-meter drop-out. This is another way play is restarted when the ball goes out of the end/try zone or is touched down by a defending team inside their try zone. They then take a drop kick on or behind the 22-meter line, sending the ball back to their opponents. It's analogous to a touchback. But instead of getting the ball at the 20, you kick it back to the other team from the 22.
Paul O'Connell, captain of Munster and the world's largest ginger, gathers the kick into his massive ginger arms.
5:33: The U.S. kicks for touch, relieving pressure in their half. The two solid lines that go across the field between the try lines and the halfway line are called the 22-meter lines, and placed 22 meters from their closest try line. When a team kicks the ball out on the fly from behind one of these lines, the opposing team gets the line-out where it crosses out of bounds. If a kick goes out on the fly (on the full, in rugby parlance), the opposing team gets the line-out where the ball was kicked. This is a mistake, and shouldn't happen. When it does, coaches get angry and kickers swear and drop their heads as they run backward. On the full=bad.
9:20: The U.S. is offside at the ruck. When a ruck or maul is formed, offside lines are formed as well, running through the hindmost (rugby word) feet of the defending side. Players not in the ruck must stay behind the back foot, or else they are offside, as the U.S. was in this particular play. Penalty to Ireland.
Sexton lines up another shot shot at goal with the misty Taranaki wind in his face. The decision for what penalty option to take is made by the captain, Brian O'Driscoll. This time he points to the sticks. With the weather turning quickly into what Kiwis call "greazy," Sexton misses again and the U.S. has a 22.
12:40: The Irish go to Donncha O'Callaghan in the line-out, and that noise you hear is thousands of drunken Irish yelling "heave." O'Callaghan brings the ball down and forms a maul, which occurs when a player is bound but remains on his feet. His teammates can bind onto him and march the ball in a churning mass of flesh down the field. As in a ruck, a player must enter a maul from an onside position, and if the maul turns, making him offside, he must exit and return "through the gate"—from straight behind the last foot.
13:30: The U.S. gains possession in its half and relieves pressure with a kick to touch while a rainy and drunken "wave" rings around Taranaki Stadium. Your correspondent contemplates the uselessness of the wave and thinks of Mitch Hedberg: "Weeeee—that's the noise you make when you are having fun. You refer to yourself, and some other people." But I guess I can forgive them. They are after all shitfaced drunk.
15:05: U.S. captain Todd Clever has his hands on the ball in the ruck, and Ireland has another penalty. Sexton will have a chance to atone for his previous two mistakes. After he puts the ball on the tee, he has one minute to complete his kick, the clock running all the while. Kicking for goal is a bit like sex—each guy has his own routine, and his own scrunched concentration face. The details will differ—the weather, the wind, the position of the kick on the field—but in the end it's pretty much the same. You either score or you don't. (Oh, and the whole thing lasts a minute.)
Sexton's aim is true this time as he slots it over from right in front of the posts. Ireland 3, USA 0.
19:19: U.S. hooker Phil Thiel charges down the attempted box kick by Ireland No. 9 Conor Murray (the only time the ball is allowed to go forward off a hand). Fly-half Roland Suniula recovers inside Ireland's 22 and offloads to Captain Clever. The USA's best opportunity so far.
19:33: Suniula's attempted grubber goes off Irish shins but the USA had advantage and we'll come back for a penalty. No. 11 James Paterson, a U.S. winger by way of Christchurch, New Zealand, and the Otago Highlanders, will have a shot at the posts from the far left touchline.
Paterson's attempt goes wide across the face of goal and the score remains Ireland 3, USA 0.
29:00: Doesn't Todd Clever have gorgeous hair?
29:11: The rain comes down even harder, the Irish are finding their legs. They break the U.S. line through winger Keith Earls. The ball is recycled quickly by scrum-half Murray, and Ireland has numbers down the short side. It looks like they're going over until His Hirsuteness Captain Clever rocks winger Tommy Bowe as he's offloading for a possible try. Ireland knocks on, and the U.S. escapes danger for now.
30:34: Penalty by the Irish scrum well and truly gets the U.S. out of danger as they kick from the shadow of their own try line into the safety of touch.
31:00: The first chants of "Ireland, Ireland" ring out through the crowd. It's a testament to how well the U.S. is playing that it's taken a half-hour for the Irish supporters to find their voices. Did I mention the Eagles are playing unbelievably well? They are.
33:00: The Americans, along with more than a few Kiwis supporting the underdog Yanks, reply with the good ol' "U-S-A! U-S-A!" chant. The atmosphere around the stadium is truly fantastic.
37:30: Knock-on by Ireland relieves pressure on the US. They are defending resolutely and trail by only three. If they can hang on and escape this half down only a penalty, they will end possibly the greatest half of rugby in USA Eagles history down by a single kick at goal.
As halftime approaches, it's worth mentioning that the clock will stop but play continues until there is a knock-on, penalty, kick to touch, or a try.
39:34: Another huge hit by Clever, this time on Jonny Sexton. But Sexton takes the hit as he offloads to Tommy Bowe, hitting the gap on his inside. Clever has left a gap going after the fly-half and big prop Mike MacDonald just isn't quick enough to fill it. Bowe jukes to his right, breaks MacDonald's arm tackle, and slides over the wet turf …
39:37: … to touch down just outside the right goal post. Ireland try. Unlucky, really, for the U.S. They played such a fantastic half, only to give up points at the death. Gutted.
Sexton finally finds his kicking boots and extends the Irish lead as the teams head from the rain-soaked pitch to the locker rooms. Ireland 10, USA 0. Even so, a marvelous half for the Eagles.
A quick word about tries and conversions. A try is a touchdown in rugby. The word "touchdown" actually comes from rugby—a try is not scored until a player physically touches the ball down in the try zone. A try is worth five points. The team then earns a conversion kick, which is like an extra point, but actually hard. The kick must be made in a direct line back from wherever the try was touched down, greatly increasing the degree of difficulty. The conversion kick's extra difficulty is reflected in its two-point value.
Half time: Ireland has been as sloppy as the weather, and the usually vociferous, Guinness-bloated fans take their pissed pisses in uncharacteristic silence, pensive looks on their painted faces. The U.S. fans, hoping against hope for a good result before the game, but with stoically low expectations, couldn't be more pleased with the Eagles' performance. Apart from some average kicking from hand—no worse than Sexton's kicking performance for Ireland, it must be said—the U.S. is putting on a performance that no rugby fan anywhere in the world could have envisioned. It's been an absolute pleasure to watch.
For those of you who don't remember (it was overshadowed by the Japanese earthquake/tsunami a week later) the lovely second city of New Zealand, Christchurch on the South Island, was devastated by an earthquake in February. The city's stadium, meant to hold pool matches and a semi-final, was too damaged to be used for the World Cup. The International Rugby Board encourages you to text "RUGBY" to 933 to donate 3 NZD to Christchurch earthquake relief. Though I have no idea if this will work in the U.S., on U.S. phones, it's more than worth mentioning here.
40:01: Since the Americans received the ball to begin the game, they will now kick to Ireland to begin the second half. The Irish have the strong wind at their back this half, which should prove a decided advantage as the rain begins to lighten. Is this the weather break the Irish need?
41:46: The Irish scrum is beginning to dominate as they earn a penalty for collapsing the USA's front row. Sexton will have another try at the posts, from the 10-meter line, now with the wind behind him.
Aaaaand … Sexton blows another. He's now 2 for 5. Still Ireland 10, USA 0.
44:03: Again, Ireland forces a penalty. This time Clever is pinged for not rolling away at the tackle. Sexton will have yet another go, from nearly the same spot as his last miss. Another hook off tee for Sexton. He's now 2 of 6. Jaysus, as the Irish say. Are they missing the reliable boot of San Diego-born Ronan O'Gara? It certainly seems so.
49:41: There's plenty of life yet for the U.S. Fullback Blaine Scully fields another nothing kick from a slipping Sexton and breaks through the Irish line. He has winger Takudzwa Ngwenya, who scored the try of the last World Cup (seriously, watch this), flying down his outside, but he can't get the pass off. Might have been a try for the US. As it is, Ireland is penalized at the ruck. The U.S. and Todd Clever, perhaps because the wind is against them, perhaps because they have huge balls and feel the momentum, forgo a difficult kick for points, and instead Roland Suniula boots it into touch. The U.S. will have a line-out inside the Irish 22. Great stuff.
50:19: Before the U.S. has a chance to throw into the line-out, Ireland makes the game's first substitution. After a dismal day with the boot, perhaps influenced by the blowing gale here in New Plymouth, Jonny Sexton heads off for Ronan O'Gara, all-time leading points scorer in Irish history and owner of a U.S. passport. Though he moved when he was two months old, it's hard not to feel a tinge of regret and jealousy seeing him run on in green. He's joined off the bench by replacement scrum-half Eoin Morgan, on for Conor Murray.
50:44: The Americans win their own line-out ball, and the forwards begin driving toward the try line. Only 10 meters out. Is this the moment? A try here would delight the increasingly vocal U.S. fans and shock the Irish, and the world, or at least the part of the world that's watching.
52:20: There goes the "U-S-A!" chant again. The Americans' momentum is now palpable in the stadium.
52:35: The U.S. is going through 10-12 phases, driving the Irish back. They nearly break the line a couple of times and finally Ireland concedes a penalty at the breakdown. Todd Clever points to the posts!
No. 11 James Paterson, the Kiwi, will attempt a penalty for the U.S. Did your grandpa ever play golf? If he did, he constructed his tee in the same way that Paterson is doing now, albeit on a smaller scale. A guy with a bucket of sand and a water bottle wanders onto the pitch, and Paterson makes a little sand castle, topped with a big white turret of a rugby ball. The drunken Irish seem to find this hilarious, but fook tim.
51:30: USA SCORES! This time Paterson's sandcastle is sturdy enough that he calmly slots over a penalty, giving the Americans their first points of the World Cup and putting them within a converted try of the mighty Irish, who are in stunned silence as the USA fans go crazy. Ireland 10, USA 3.
52:00: Ireland kicks back to the U.S. (rugby, unlike football, plays under make-it-take-it rules), and all around the stadium sphincters begin to tighten. Can the U.S. sustain the momentum?
53:00: Um, no. Scrum-half Mike Petri lets the kick land in front of him and then fumbles it around before kicking it weakly into touch. Ireland, through no work of its own, now has a line-out deep inside U.S. territory.
54:51: World's Largest Ginger Paul O'Connell takes the line-out, as he's taken thousands before for the men in green, and the Irish form another rolling maul. With O'Connell facing backward and carried forward by six other men, they form a swarming colony of marching legs that drives the U.S. back. The Americans are unable to cope with Ireland's mauling power and are driven back against their own try line. The line-out/maul has been one of the few bright spots on this dark and damp evening for the Irish.
55:00: Ireland try. The rolling maul is too much for the Americans. Hooker Rory Best peels off the back and goes over in the corner for an Irish try. Ronan O'Gara misses his kick, too. The rain has stopped,and the wind is dying down. The improved conditions should help the Irish. U.S. fans look up to the sky and wonder if their opportunity has just vaporized. Ireland 15, USA 3.
58:00: Irish fans begin an insufferable "Ole!" chant. Why must you go with a Spanish soccer chant, when 10,000 drunk Irish fans singing "Fields of Athenry" into the night is obviously so much more preferable? Disappointing.
60:00: Ireland try. Captain Brian O'Driscoll makes his presence felt for the first time all match as he bursts through the U.S. defense for a lovely try. Fatigue and the improving weather, not to mention an improving Irish side, have conspired to turn this match in Ireland's direction in a hurry. There is a worry the match will become a runaway. And it'd be a shame, too. The U.S. wouldn't deserve it. O'Gara converts from a tight angle to make it Ireland 22, USA 3.
68:15: The reporter for Agence France-Presse next to me in press row is chatting with someone on MSN Messenger. What is this, my basement in 2001? What the fuck, French people? Watch the World Cup. You didn't even pay for your ticket.
70:41: Ireland's Stephen Ferris goes off for a run across the field by himself and is slapped with a penalty for holding onto the ball. That's what happens when you don't play well with others, Stephen. Well deserved.
74:20: The strain of a hard-fought match shows for each side as some half-hearted punches are thrown after a scrum. The U.S. won't go away, and it's pissing the Irish off. Fook tim again.
75:00: A second Ireland chant wells up. The Irish fans finally feel that victory is at hand. It's a testament to how well the U.S. has played that it's taken 75 minutes for them to feel that way.
76:00: Here's Clever again, emerging from an Ireland scrum with the ball in hand and hair flying behind him. When you win the scrum after the other team has put the ball in, it's called a tighthead, and it's very hard to do. Well done to the USA.
77:00: The result now no longer in doubt, World's Scariest Ginger Paul O'Connell is named man of the match. It could have easily gone to Clever, but O'Connell's presence in the line-out and maul really did swing the game in Ireland's favor.
80:00 USA TRY!
With seconds to go, outside center Paul Emerick intercepts a lazy Irish pass and takes it 50 meters to touch it down with a swan dive between the posts. The USA really did deserve a try, and such an out-of-the blue break brings the crowd to its feet. The intercept try really is one of the most exciting plays in rugby. A fabulous example of risk vs. reward. Well done, Paul Emerick.
With a conventional, plastic tee this time, replacement fly-half Nese Malifa slots over a short, easy conversion kick and South African referee Craig Joubert blows his whistle for full time. The players on both sides look absolutely wrecked as they shake each other's hands in the middle of the muddy field. Ireland 22, USA 10.
Even this close score doesn't quite do justice to the U.S. performance. In an amazing sign of respect, the Irish tunnel up by the entrance to the locker rooms and shake the hands of each of the U.S. boys as they walk off. To return the respect, the U.S. forms a tunnel of its own and claps the Irish boys off the field. Fantastic stuff. This is rugby, and isn't rugby great? Can you see Cortland Finnegan and Andre Johnson de-swagging themselves long enough to show that kind of respect? No, you cannot. You'll absolutely see nothing like it on a Sunday afternoon around the NFL.
So your intrepid reporter, hangover relieved by a brisk evening and a fabulous U.S. performance, leaves his seat beyond impressed with the American team. Ireland has long been a powerhouse of world rugby, and to keep the game that close and put that kind of scare into the overgrown lads in green means that USA Rugby is on the right path, and sooner than could be expected. Hopefully a night like tonight will go far toward growing the game stateside.
Dave Shireley is a Deadspin rugby correspondent. He arrives in New Zealand with 1.5 TBs of downloaded rugby matches on three hard drives and with zero girlfriends. During his otherwise undistinguished career at Colorado College, he was a hooker for three years. That's a rugby joke.