US, Tonga fight for a rugby win that's far from meaningless
OSAKA, Japan (AP) — Tonga has come close in Japan. The United States hasn't. One win at the Rugby World Cup could make their tournaments.
Both teams are out of contention but both still desperately need something to perk up Rugby World Cup campaigns that are proving every bit as tough as they thought they'd be.
The U.S. situation is urgent. The Americans haven't won a World Cup game since 2011 and have won three out of 25 dating back to 1987. The Americans crash-landed at this tournament with an opening 45-7 loss to England that would have been 45-nothing if replacement Bryce Campbell hadn't dived over at the end of a chaotic final play after the hooter in Kobe.
From there, the U.S. went down 33-9 to France and 47-17 to Argentina and is now bottom of Pool C.
Coach Gary Gold said this tournament was about learning lessons for the U.S. Eagles and they got three of them in back-to-back-to-back games against top-tier teams.
"Our preparation was there. Physically and fitness-wise, we've been able to live with these teams," Gold said. "We're just not as good as them yet."
Against Tonga on Sunday it's different because it's the kind of game the U.S. needs to be winning to prove there's progress. There will be a skip in the step of the Americans when they get on the plane back to the States if they get it done.
This is the first Rugby World cup since the start of Major League Rugby, the professional league in America, and it would be great if the U.S. national team could see some knock-on effect. Ten of the players on the squad now play with MLR teams.
Regarding the games against England, France and Argentina, Gold said: "For us, at this particular moment in time, just to be competitive is really the goal and I think we pretty much achieved that."
But when it comes to Tonga, Gold adds, "Sunday's going to be important."
Gold also used Friday's media opportunity to pitch for the United States to get the 2027 Rugby World Cup. The U.S. hasn't formally bid yet but already has the 2026 soccer World Cup and the 2028 Summer Olympics, in Los Angeles.
"I feel so very strongly that if World Rugby genuinely do want to grow the game, as they claim they want to, then USA have to be a contender for the 2027 Rugby World Cup," Gold said.
Way before that, there's no stressing how much of a positive effect a victory in a game at this Rugby World Cup can have for rugby back home.
The U.S. hasn't played Tonga since 2016 but did beat Samoa, a similar challenge, in August.
Like Samoa, Tonga will bring "massive physicality," Gold said. And the U.S. coach thought the Tongans deserved to beat France when they missed out 23-21 last Sunday.
Tonga will also play for captain Siale Piutau, who said Friday he was retiring from international rugby after the game on Sunday.
"I've been thinking about hanging up my boots and now I'm making it public," Piutau told reporters.
"I'm not putting the focus on myself, but I want to leave the team on a high, that's my priority. There is no place I would rather be than with these boys."
The Americans and Tongans won't know what to expect at the Hanazono Stadium, Japan's oldest rugby stadium, after Typhoon Hagibis has roared through Japan as expected on Saturday. Because of the powerful typhoon, the stadium is off-limits on Saturday for the teams, who normally get an on-field practice the day before the game.
"We don't know what's in store, but we are prepared." Tonga coach Toutai Kefu said. "We will just have an indoor session if we are allowed out of the hotel. It's obviously going to be a wet game."
United States: Will Hooley, Blaine Scully (captain), Bryce Campbell, Paul Lasike, Marcel Brache, AJ MacGinty, Ruben de Haas; Cam Dolan, Malon Al-Jiboori, Tony Lamborn, Nick Civetta, Greg Peterson, Titi Lamositele, Joe Taufete'e, Eric Fry. Reserves: James Hilterbrand, Olive Kilifi, Paul Mullen, Ben Landry, Hanco Germishuys, Ben Pinkelman, Nate Augspurger, Mike Te'o.
Tonga: Telusa Veainu, 'Atieli Pakalani, Malietoa Hingano, Siale Piutau (captain), Viliami Lolohea, James Faiva, Sonatane Takulua; Maama Vaipulu, Zane Kapeli, Sione Kalamafoni, Halaleva Fifita, Sam Lousi, Siua Halanukonuka, Paula Ngauamo, Siegfried Fisi'ihoi. Reserves: Siua Maile, Vunipola Fifita, Ma'afu Fia, Dan Faleafa, Nasi Manu, Leon Fukofuka, Latiume Fosita, David Halaifonua.