There were worries going into this test in Houston about the hot, humid conditions and the physicality that the home side would bring to bear, but those early tensions were eased with a soaring opening try created by the pace of captain Stuart Hogg. Smart hands from debutant Matt Fagerson, Pete Horne and then Hogg’s burst between two American forwards at full tilt made a simple 2-on-1 to Blair Kinghorn which was perfectly timed for the big winger to dive over in the corner. He then converted from out wide.
In terms of the bigger picture of Scotland and away form, it was a perfect start, but there wouldn’t be a perfect end.
The rest of the opening quarter of the game showed that the USA were going to be a far tougher proposition than Canada last weekend. Sale Sharks standoff AJ McGinty took their first points after a spell of heavy American pressure characterised by hard running forwards and McGinty pulling the strings.
Scotland earned a second try following some nice half breaks by Nick Grigg and Pete Horne which led to George Horne breaking loose towards the posts. In a bit of a mismatch, he was tackled high just short of the line by Samu Manoa, the US lock. Although other defenders were present, referee Wayne Barnes showed the yellow card and awarded a penalty try.
McGinty kept the USA in touch with a penalty against Luke Hamilton for offside but George Turner stretched it back out again with one of his trademark rolling maul tries approaching half time. Scotland looked fairly comfortable, but the home team were determined not to let them get out of sight. They were rewarded for a period of strong pressure in the Scots’ 22 with a try scored by hooker Joe Taufete’e from a short burst under the posts, spinning away between Tim Swinson and Matt Fagerson.
Scotland did at least have the last word from a Blair Kinghorn penalty but they definitely were not having it all their own way.
Half time: USA 13-24 Scotland
The USA showed they had some set-piece chops of their own with Taufete’e stretching out after a confident maul. It was a start as positive for the hosts as Kinghorn’s try had been for the visitors, especially when followed up almost immediately by another penalty from the superb McGinty; Hamilton again on the wrong side of the referee.
That brought the scores back to within a point of difference and Scotland suddenly looked a little less confident. Gregor Townsend turned to the bench to add a bit of experience: Grant Gilchrist on for Lewis Carmichael – a lot less noticeable than on his debut – and Fraser Brown added as a back row replacement for Luke Hamilton, presumably for more impact at the breakdown, meaning two makeshift flankers with Tim Swinson still at blindside.
Scotland though, didn’t change much about the way they were playing, with kicking attempting to alleviate the effects of the heat but one spell of aerial ping-pong left Hogg up by the American kicker and Matt Fagerson couldn’t deal with McGinty’s return kick. The former Connacht man was able to regather and popped it to Germishuys to score in the corner.
With an hour played, the USA were in the lead, and they deserved it.
More of Scotland’s bench came on including Dave Denton, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and finally got Scotland back over the line, although Mark Bennett knocked it on in the act of scoring. In the build up there had been a great break by Kinghorn but he perhaps didn’t pass to the support when he could have, and Tim Swinson found himself free on the other wing after a lovely long pass from Adam Hastings and could have given it to Turner who was in support and didn’t. Everyone was perhaps too eager to make amends for a sloppy second half to that point.
It wasn’t going their way, with a few cute moves too many in slippy handling conditions. Six points adrift, Scotland needed a try against the USA who were on an unbeaten streak at home and the prognosis was starting to look a little worrying going in to the final ten minutes and that didn’t change as the scores stayed the same with just five minutes to play.
Scotland went to their trusted weapon from last weekend – the rolling maul – but they couldn’t get it, well, rolling. The ball was held too long until an error was made and from there the USA could play keep ball. Unfortunately, Warrior Greg Peterson was penalised with seconds left to give Scotland one last chance and water-carrier Mike Blair was issuing frantic last minute advice for the final lineout.
The USA conceded a further penalty but there was an injury stoppage with time up and some confusion over HIAs and eligible substitutes there was plenty of time for the Scots to consider their options. They went through phase after phase with Denton carrying plenty as the freshest forward. They really needed it under the posts, but when the pack were visibly making little ground it went back to Hastings who threaded a pass to Dougie Fife who went over in the corner. It was fitting that AJ McGinty forced Fife to stay wide and it meant Kinghorn had the result on his shoulders with the conversion to come.
Unfortunately the young man missed it, from a similar position to the one he had nailed earlier in the game. A first loss to the USA but in reality it was no less than this Eagles team deserved for a second half in which they dominated a disjointed Scotland.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU)
SRBlog Man of the Match: A tricky one this, as Kinghorn was probably the standout back but missed the kick at the end. George Turner was probably the pick of the forwards, with another try and good lineout execution all night. Everyone made small errors, and they all added up.