Men's Eagles
35 14
Argentina XV
35 21
Men's Eagles  @ BBVA Compass Stadium
Americas Rugby Championship
  Chris Assmus (CAN)


HOUSTON - The John Mitchell regime began with a bang Saturday night at BBVA Compass Stadium as the Men's Eagles opened the inaugural Americas Rugby Championship competition with a 35-35 draw with Argentina XV.

Houston native Taku Ngwenya was all over the pitch in more than 80 minutes of gameplay in the team's first action of 2016, and was one of four try-scorers for Mitchell's side as the U.S. scored 35 points for the first time against a non-Canadian team since 2012. Veterans and first-time Eagles alike responded to each Argentina flurry to keep the match within a winnable distance, and missed penalty goals by both teams in the dwindling seconds assured the tie.

The U.S. will continue its ARC campaign Saturday, Feb. 13, against Canada in nearby Austin.

Hoping to impress their new head coach early, the Eagles played to the strengths of the new systems of Mitchell and assistants Phil Greening, Robert Hoadley, and Marty Veale. Fly half James Bird, one of six new starters on the pitch from the opening whistle, pinned Argentina in its own half in the first minute with a kick that rolled to a stop ahead of the try line. The pressured clearance kick was poor, but Argentina was given momentary respite as the Eagles lost the ball into touch.

The U.S. forwards earned a penalty in the middle of the pitch nearly 25 meters out, and Bird stroked the ball through the uprights for a 3-0 lead after three minutes. Having to defend deep themselves, the Eagles cleared the danger from the ensuing restart, and the defensive chase forced another call from the match official. Captain Blaine Scully again pointed to the posts, and Bird doubled his tally for a sixth-minute, 6-0, advantage.

Known for its scrummaging in recent years, Argentina struggled to win the set piece throughout the match, and a 12th-minute scrum at the visitors' 22 came out quickly to Niku Kruger. The scrum half took the short side near the touch line and waited to pop it to Ngwenya, who cut inside one defender and escaped the grasp of another to score the match's first try. Bird extended the lead to 13-0 with his first conversion.

The Eagles were not without their own penalty troubles, but the tenacity in the breakdown - one of the building blocks focused on by the coaches during the week's assembly - helped win ball, curtailing a quick Argentina transition. Argentina was able to cross the try line in the 18th minute by avoiding rucks, and Tomás Carrió dove over to put his side on the scoreboard at 13-7.

Ngwenya kept Argentina from taking the lead in the 22nd minute with a 50-plus-meter chase of Joaquín Paz, who broke the gain line at midfield. Chad London followed his teammate to knock the ball backwards into the try zone, and the Eagles escaped, momentarily, for a five-meter scrum. Argentina shored its set piece and fought along the try line to take a 14-13 lead via captain Rodrigo Báez.

The Eagles winger drew some extra attention in the 30th minute after just missing out on his second try in the corner, and escaped a sinning with an advantage played for an Argentina infraction earlier in the attack. The penalty allowed the Eagles to retake the lead through Bird's third kick, a 16-14 advantage with about 10 minutes to play in the half.

Paz made up for his failure to beat Ngwenya to the try zone with a try just before the end of the half, taking an offload from fellow center Juan Cappiello for the score. Fly half Domingo Miotti kicked his third conversion for a 21-16 lead, and Bird's first unsuccessful penalty goal - as well as a short midfield attempt from Miotti - kept the score as is going into the break.

"It wasn't pretty," Mitchell said of the first half after the match. "That was to be expected, but there was some good stuff, as well. We had a good start. The catching in our exit area was costly and that allowed them back in the match, and then we were slow to set our transitions. We got ourselves back in the fight after halftime."

Todd Clever was held up in-goal in the 45th minute after the Eagles went for a five-meter lineout rather than points. Several mauls tested the Argentine defense over a five-minute period, and Clever eventually drove over with prop Eric Fry to put the U.S. back on terms at 21-21.

Argentina's fast breaks helped secure a Semifinal spot in last year's Rugby World Cup, but Houston's own Kingsley McGowan helped keep a try from being scored in the 56th minute, then stormed into the attacking half a few minutes later on the attack. Despite holding strong through several Argentina ventures to the 22, the Eagles conceded a fourth try in the 65th minute from a quick tap five meters from the line.

Cam Dolan saw to it the Eagles would not be trailing for long, intercepting a pass on the ensuing restart in his own half for a 55-meter try. Bird's conversion leveled the match once again, and Mitchell began inserting substitutes to keep the level of play high.

"I think we've got a lot of work to do fitness-wise - that's clear and obvious - but they stayed together," Mitchell said of his team. "Some old things came out under fatigue, as well, but I thought the contribution by the replacements was very good."

Mike Te'o saw his first 15s action with the national team at scrum half, and helped provide quick ball to his teammates as the Eagles searched for the go-ahead score. David Tameilau's strength with ball in hand drove the U.S. out of the defensive half and London found space on the wing to close in on the 22. Mike Sosene-Feagai took three defenders to the ground in the middle of the pitch before Olive Kilifi was stopped on the try line. A penalty in the breakdown to Argentina resulted in Cappiello being shown a yellow card, and the U.S. kicked to touch to go up against a 14-man Argentina in open play.

Several crashes on the try line kept Argentina on its toes, and Fry dove over the side five minutes from time to get the ball down in-goal. Bird's conversion propelled the Eagles into their first lead since the first half, but Tomás Carrió crossed over for Argentina's reply a few minutes later.

With the score level at 35-all, the Eagles refused to take the draw and pushed on, earning a penalty from a scrum near the Argentina 10. Bird's game-winning penalty goal attempt was just wide, and Miotti followed suit with an attempt just inside midfield short minutes later. One last attack resulted in nothing, with the referee ending the game well into extra time.

The four U.S. try-scorers have been mainstays with the team in recent years, with Dolan and Ngwenya scheduled to join their professional clubs overseas following the weekend, Fry to head back to Newcastle Falcons after the Canada match, and Clever staying only through the home matches.

"We saw, when we were able to get in our systems, how effective it was," Fry said of the new game plan under Mitchell. "The thing to shore up was between, when we turned the ball over and when we gave away the penalty and allowed a quick tap.

"So we have a lot of faith that this system can work very well. It's very exciting. A lot of new boys - they brought a lot of energy and physicality, and you can see just how dangerous we're going to become once we get these systems nailed down, once we get our fitness up."

The Eagles will review Saturday's match and continue to improve in the next build-up week in Texas before taking on arch rival Canada in Austin Feb. 13. The draw at BBVA Compass Stadium will re-air on ESPN2 Sunday, Feb. 7, at 8 p.m. ET.