FUKUOKA – A 33-9 loss would not quite suggest that the Eagles have landed but United States coach Gary Gold was satisfied they were on the right trajectory after giving the French a Fukuoka fright night at the World Cup on Wednesday.
The U.S. were unable to cross for a try but won plenty of respect from their opponents and local fans at the Hakatanomori Stadium as they fought back from 12-3 down to push within three points in the final quarter.
Three-time finalists France settled the matter with three late tries but the scoreline flattered them and an upbeat Gold was thrilled with how his team responded after their opening thrashing by England last week.
“I’m just so proud of everybody, the reserves made a big difference when they came on, we worked incredibly hard for this today,” the South African told reporters.
“A bit sad we didn’t get a try for more on the scoreboard, but just a very, very good performance and really positive for the way forward.
“The gap is definitely closing quite a lot. If you look back a couple of years ago, a couple of World Cups ago, there were 70, 80-point drubbings for tier ones (teams) versus tier twos but now we are giving ourselves a chance 65 minutes into the game.”
The U.S. defended stoutly to win turnovers on their try-line and showed cleaner hands and superior discipline on a night of stifling humidity.
Flyhalf AJ MacGinty slotted three penalties and gave France flyhalf Camille Lopez competition for player of the match honours with his composed game management.
With France under huge pressure, MacGinty’s third penalty pushed the U.S. to within three points in the 64th minute, but the Sale Sharks pivot said he had wanted to kick for the corner to seek a try and the chance to snatch an unlikely lead.
“Momentum probably swung our way there and they were under a lot of pressure so going for that try would’ve been like a killer blow for them and their tails would’ve been up,” he said.
But for some fumbles when on attack in the French 22, the U.S. might have been contemplating an even bigger boilover than Japan’s brilliant 19-12 win over Ireland last week.
“When we gave ourselves decent opportunities we’d come under a little pressure and we’d knock the ball on or concede a penalty but that’s part of the learning curve,” said Gold.
The buoyed Eagles will hope to apply that learning to their next Pool C clash against Argentina in a week.
“I’m very confident for Argentina,” Gold said.
“There’s a lot to play for us still, actually, so we’re really excited about coming up against Argentina.”