After a hard-fought 16-16 draw with Portugal in Dubai on Friday, the US men failed to qualify for the 2023 World Cup in France. This was a major setback for American rugby.
The World Cup is one of the few occasions when rugby gets mainstream attention in the United States and now the event will be held without the American team.
Although the USA have never done so well at a World Cup – their overall record is 3-22 – they have almost always managed to at least get there. The United States had qualified for the last six World Cups and eight out of nine overall. Portugal had only qualified for the cup once before, in 2007.
At the start of the game, Portugal were ranked 18th in the world and the USA 19th, so a close fight was likely. And the first half proved that. The game went into the break 10:9 for Portugal. The American points came from three penalties from the team captain and flying half, AJ MacGinty. Portugal’s came from a penalty plus Raffaele Storti’s lone try-half, scored while the Americans had a man in the rugby equivalent of the box, the ‘bin of sin’.
Portugal extended their lead with a penalty in the second half, but then the USA broke through. After extended play near the goal line, Kapeli Pifeleti got it over the line for a try and the USA took a 16-13 lead.
The game was billed as a duel between speedy Portugal and mighty USA. The strong, methodical US defense continued to frustrate the Portuguese flair. But crucially, the US did not extend its lead.
And Portugal had an ace up their sleeve. It held the tie break, so it would advance if the game ended in a draw. And with no time on the clock, Portugal had one last chance on penalties to secure that tie. Samuel Marques converted the kick from 35 meters. Game over, at 16-16, and the USA were eliminated from the World Cup.
The game was the Americans’ third and final chance to earn a berth. The first came against Uruguay in October 2021. But the US lost that two-game streak 50-34.
In July, USA got a second chance against Chile and appeared to be in great form after winning the away game by a point. But the USA were caught off guard in the second leg in Glendale, Colorado and lost by 2 points in a game they were leading, 19-0. Chile had never qualified for the cup before.
Qualifying seemed all the more important for the US as the country is set to host the 2031 World Cup, an event that American rugby fans believe will give the sport a major boost in the US.
At the start of the Last Chance qualifier in Dubai, the USA had clearly beaten overwhelmed Kenya and Hong Kong with a total of 96 points. But Portugal beat the same opponents by a little more, 113 points. In the end, that was the difference between a trip to the World Cup and four years of waiting.