Three tries from Danny Howard and another superb performance by skipper Mark Offerdahl saw the USA become the eleventh nation to qualify for the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, after they beat Canada 34-24 in a wonderful winner-takes-all clash against Canada at the Hodges Stadium, Jacksonville, Florida.
The Hawks qualify for their second successive World Cup, after making the quarter finals in 2013, new head coach for the qualifying series, Brian McDermott, ending a sensational season with a further triumph, having taken Leeds Rhinos to a domestic treble.
McDermott switched Los Angeles-born Danny Howard to the second row from centre, where he had played in the narrow win over Jamaica in game one, to team up with brother Steve and it proved to be a masterstroke, as did moving Ryan Burroughs to full back when Corey Makelim was sent off for dissent just after the half hour. Burrough’s superb linking runs from the back continually pushed Canada back after they threatened to create history by reaching the World Cup for the first time, the Wolverines leading 18-14 at the break, although eventually beaten by eight tries to four.
Hooker Ryley Jacks, who persisted despite injury and also crossed for three tries, and his brother stand off Rhys – along with ‘the Sheriff’ Jamie Kelly – were superb for the visitors, who were looking for their fourth successive win over the Hawks. But, late on, when chasing the win they needed after drawing with Jamaica, Canada were undone when forcing passes that didn’t go to hand.
“The performance was right up there in terms of courage and determination,” said McDermott. “It wasn’t the flashest performance ever, there were one or two things we needed to be better at, but after having a man sent off at the back end of the first half to then get over a very competitive Canada just shows how much determination and desire the players had. I’m immensely proud, we qualified for the World Cup which was the first objective but it’s been a really enjoyable camp for the last two weeks and the players have given absolutely everything.
“Canada are a good team and we were worried at 18-all. They’ve already beaten America twice this year and we were under no illusions how good they were going to be. The whole second half was a real worrying time and they deserve a lot of credit as well.”
In 25 degree temperatures, the first half followed the pattern of the first two qualifiers, with plenty of endeavour on defence, some spilled ball due to over-eagerness and penalties given away at the play-the-ball.
As they had against Jamaica, USA started strongly to take an early lead; Taylor Alley stepping over at the end of the first set of the game, a repeat one, and Taylor Howden – who posed a threat throughout – crossing on the left inside the opening nine minutes, both conversion attempts missed.
Canada hit back well, Rhys Jacks and Steve Piatek combing to put Kelly over, Piatek goaling and the same combination looked to have worked again soon after but the final pass was ruled forward.
The Wolverines did take the lead in controversial fashion in the 32nd minute, Ryley Jacks burrowing over from close in despite Makelim’s protestations that he had got under the ball which resulted in him being marched from the field by official Robert Hicks. Piatek goaled and the visitors led, but only briefly, Burroughs making a surging run from the back and Danny Howard ploughing over, Howden – one of four kickers used by the Hawks – with the only successful home conversion to make it 14-12.
There was still a sting in the tail to end the half, on the final play, a beautiful chip over by Rhys Jacks bamboozled the home defence, Ryley running on to it to step Burroughs and go over by the posts, Piatek with the extras.
Again the USA began a half strongly when the teams re-emerged, Howden powering over in the corner on a last tackle powerplay after the ball had been switched expertly from left to right, to level. Steve Howard was held up and Rhys Jacks broke clear in response but his pass only found touch, Kristian Freed then kicking a 40-20 from which Central Florida Warrior Alley bustled his was over for his second score. Offerdahl made a clearing run but the Canadian defence held but they couldn’t halt Burroughs on a 50 metre charge which set the position for Howard’s second try out wide.
As Canada seemed to tire, Burroughs crossed in the 63rd minute but again the goal was missed that would have given the Hawks a three score lead. The Wolverines regathered their own short kick off and Ryley Jacks again made them pay from close in, Piatek’s goal from in front making it 30-24.Alex Boyd was held up as the Canadians looked to level and Roman Lowery diffused a Rhys Jacks kick to the corner as the 12-man Hawks were stretched.
Canada tried a chip over but Rich Henson cleaned up and Burroughs dropped a high kick on the last, but again the USA defence held when the final pass out wide went into touch. With the last minute approaching, Danny Howard went on a run up the left hand side and forced his way over for the celebrations to begin. Offerdahl took the final conversion attempt from touch, but the ball drifted wide.
“That was the toughest game I’ve ever played,” he said. “To play 50 minutes with 12 men, it was a ridiculous effort from the boys. If we could kick goals it might have been a little bit easier for us! I’m so proud of them, I’ve never been involved in anything like that and now we’ve got 2017 to plan for.
London Bronco Offerdahl added: “I put the victory down to the work we’ve done in the week and the game-plan we had. At times we went away from it and that’s when we started to concede points but when we went back to it everything worked out. We had to dig in – there were forwards playing more minutes than they are used to and wingers having 20 or so scoots for the game.”
Understandably, with what was at stake, there were tears from both sides when the hooter went.
Canada coach Aaron Zimmerle commented: “There were periods in the game where it was our opportunity to take control of the match but credit to America they really stood up. “Some of their go-to players were able to pull out the big plays when needed, they capitalized well late when we were trying to force the issue and made an error. But, as this whole tournament has showed, every time we’re down and out, we find a way to claw back into the game.”
Canada co-captain Piatek noted: “I would like to congratulate the USA for their victory. We worked very hard and to even be involved in the World Cup qualifiers themselves was a sign of how far we have come. We have four years now to take the sport in Canada to new levels and we’ll be ready to try to qualify again.”
Photo Courtesy Davey Wilson