Ultimately, the result of this game was probably the right one but this Russia side will feel that they had enough chances to secure a historic victory in their first ever appearance at a Rugby World Cup final.
The pre-match optimism that surged through the Russian camp was justified right from the start when a Mike Petri kick for the US was charged down and the red shirts surged into their opponents’ half. The resulting pressure saw a penalty awarded just to the left of the posts and Yury Kushnarev held his nerve to record Russia’s first points of the campaign.
Nikolay Nerush’s men couldn’t have wished for a better start but the US responded strongly to the early reverse and now, all the pressure was back inside the Russian half. After a period of resolute defending, the inevitable happened and a Chris Wyles penalty on 12 minutes drew the sides level at 3-3.
It seemed as if the US would take a permanent hold on the match from here but, it was Russia that held the dominant hand in the minutes that followed so the game’s turning point, which came on 18 minutes was completely against the run of play.
As the US attacked down the left, Wyles threw an inside pass to Roland Suniula who suddenly found himself in space and after releasing Petri, the Russian defence buckled to allow the Newport Gwent Dragons scrum half to sprint to the line. It was a conversion that Wyles couldn’t miss and it saw the US take a seven point lead.
Once again, Russia took up the challenge and enjoyed plenty of possession after this reverse. However, indecision in the centre saw the backs miss promising positions out on the wing and on 23 minutes they gave Wyles a chance to extend the lead but his penalty was poor.
Finally, the US were dominant in possession and the final fifteen minutes of the first half was played out almost entirely in Russian territory. Takudzwa Ngwenya, the exciting Zimbabwe born winger got into the game at last but dropped the wet ball while in a promising position.
The half time whistle was therefore met with great relief and while the US were beginning to take a hold of the game, a 10 -3 score line meant that Russia were very much in with a chance.
As the teams ran out for the start of the second half, the rain that has been so commonplace at much of this tournament had arrived , turning into a torrential downpour and with the game so delicately poised, it was a shame to see the conditions having such a say in the second period.
Early exchanges were even until 48 minutes when Russia had the first opportunity of the second half. It was an ambitious kick to say the least and Kushnarev’s effort from wide right near the halfway line never looked like troubling the posts.
The next ten minutes saw the US dominate but their possession was met with resolute defence from the Russians. Eventually, after Andrew Suniula was held up just in front of the posts, the ball came back and from a penalty 30 yards out, Wyles hit the upright.
On the hour, Russia sent on Adam Byrnes and Alexander Yanyushkin in an attempt to turn the possession statistics back in their favour but just five minutes later, Wyles scored the first points of the second half to make it 13 – 3 to the USA.
The game was far from over but the last ten minutes served to sum up this match with Russia wasting good possession and clear scoring opportunities. After conceding two lineouts to their opponents, the Bears were awarded a penalty just to the left of the posts.
Sadly, Kushnarev missed the easiest kick of the night but on 77 minutes the Russians were given one final chance. Kicking duties were switched to Konstantin Rachkov and he made no mistake.
A converted try was needed to bring the scores level and how close the Russians came to achieving it. Straight from the restart the red tide surged forward and a promising position on the left wing was ended when Todd Clever deliberately charged into Victor Gresev. It was seen by the touch judge but incredibly a yellow card wasn’t produced by Dave Pearson.
If the US were left to contest the final scrum with 14 men would it have been different? Sadly, rugby is a game of ‘if only’s and the final whistle blew just seconds later.
The relief on US faces at the end was tangible. If Russia had kicked their penalties and not been so indecisive going forward would the result have changed? Did pressure tell on the Bears in such a historic game?
Sadly we’ll never know and Nerush must pick his side up for a much tougher challenge against Italy in Nelson on September the 20th.
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