Canada defeated in rugby World Cup qualifier
Hercus carries the play for United States in 12-6 victory
Veteran fly half Mike Hercus was a one-man wrecking crew for the Americans as they opened a total-points Rugby World Cup qualifying series against Canada on Saturday.
He accounted for all the scoring in a 12-6 victory in Charleston, S.C., the first win by the U.S. over the Canadians since a 20-19 decision in June 2005.
Since that triumph, Canada had taken four straight meetings, outscoring their opponent 167-45, and is a career 31-12-1 against the Eagles.
"They just out-passioned us and they deserved the win," Canadian coach Kieran Crowley said following Saturday's match. "That's what this series is about — and today we just weren't good enough."
The series resumes July 11 at Edmonton's Ellerslie Park.
"I am happy to have those six points in my pocket but we are going into Canada's backyard now and it is going to be another dogfight, you can be sure about that," said U.S coach Eddie O'Sullivan.
Victory in the total-points home-and-away playoff is the easiest and quickest way to book a place in the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.
The loser of the two-leg qualifying series will have two more cracks at booking a ticket for the finals. The first option is a two-game playoff with Uruguay to determine who will advance to Pool C as Americas 2 to join Australia, Ireland, Italy and the Europe 2 qualifier.
The Canadians are 1-5 this year in the buildup to the World Cup qualifiers, losing 25-6 to Ireland A, 32-23 to Wales A and, at the Churchill Cup, 30-19 to Ireland A and 44-29 to Argentina A. The lone win was 42-10 over 17th-ranked Georgia at the Churchill Cup, where Canada finished fourth.
Comeback falls short
The Canadians nearly pulled even late in Saturday's contest, as fullback James Pritchard missed wide on a penalty attempt from close to the sidelines.
Hercus salted matters with less than two minutes remaining, taking advantage of a Canadian penalty after a Paul Emerick break.
Hercus kicked a drop goal and three penalties in a sloppy game filled with errors. For Canada, Pritchard kicked two penalties.
"We only had five guys on the team, including myself, who had ever beaten Canada before and of course this is our biggest game of the year," said Hercus. "This is about as good as it gets."
Canada is ranked 13th in the world under New Zealand coach Crowley, who took over in March 2008.
The Americans moved up to 18th in the world after beating Georgia 33-13 for fifth place in the six-team Churchill Cup last month. That win snapped a six-match losing streak.
Played in steamy 30-plus-degree conditions at Blackbaud Stadium, Saturday's game was halted regularly to allow for water breaks.
Down 9-6 with 15 minutes to go, the visitors had a gilt-edged chance after a Canadian kick deflected off U.S. winger Takudzwa Ngwenya's leg and rolled over the American goal-line for a five-metre scrum with a Canadian put-in.
The Canadians assaulted the U.S. try-line but the defence held and the Americans were able to escape after an improper Canadian scrum feed.
In the first half, the Canadians gave away penalties twice inside the U.S. 22 while the Americans were penalized once deep in the other end.
Hercus put the Americans ahead with a drop goal 29 minutes into the half. Pritchard answered with a penalty in the 32nd minute after the Americans were caught off-side.
Hercus was wide on another drop goal attempt soon after but converted a penalty in the 35th minute for a 6-3 lead. Pritchard tied it with a penalty of his own in the 39th minute.
Another Hercus penalty put the hosts ahead 9-6 in the 45th minute.
Canada played the Americans without two of its top players, with hard-hitting forward Jamie Cudmore (Clermont Auvergne, France) and Luke Tait (Stade Montois, France) both injured.
With files from The Canadian Press