In a stinging setback for American rugby, the U.S. men failed to qualify for the 2023 World Cup, after a hard-fought 16-16 tie with Portugal in Dubai on Friday.
The World Cup is one of the few times that rugby gets mainstream attention in this country, and now the event will go on without the American team.
Although the U.S. has never fared that well at a World Cup — its overall record is 3-22 — it has almost always managed at least to get there. The United States had qualified for the last six World Cups and eight of nine in total. Portugal had only qualified for the Cup once before, in 2007.
Going into the game, Portugal was ranked 18th in the world and the U.S. 19th, so a close contest seemed likely. And so the first half proved. The game went into the break 10-9 to Portugal. The American points came from three penalty kicks by the team captain and fly half, A.J. MacGinty. Portugal’s came from a penalty plus the half’s lone try, by Raffaele Storti, scored while the Americans had a man in rugby’s equivalent of the penalty box, the “sin bin.”
Portugal extended its lead in the second half with a penalty, but then the U.S. got a breakthrough. After extended play near the goal line, Kapeli Pifeleti muscled it across the line for a try, and U.S. took the lead, 16-13.
The game had been billed as a clash between speedy Portugal and powerful U.S.A. The strong, methodical U.S. defense proceeded to frustrate the Portuguese flair. But crucially, the U.S. did not add to its lead.
And Portugal had an ace in the hole. It held the tiebreaker, so if the game ended in a draw it would advance. And with no time on the clock, Portugal had a final chance at a penalty kick to get that tie. Samuel Marques converted the kick from 35 meters. Game over, at 16-16, and the U.S. was out of the World Cup.
The game was the third and final chance for the Americans to earn a berth, The first had come in October 2021 against Uruguay. But the U.S. lost that two-game series, 50-34.
In July, the U.S. got a second chance against Chile and looked to be in great shape after winning the away game by a point. But the U.S. was surprised in the return match in Glendale, Colo., losing by 2 points in a game they had led, 19-0. Chile had never previously qualified for the Cup.
Qualification seemed all the more important for the U.S. because the country is scheduled to host the 2031 World Cup, an occasion that American rugby faithful believe will be a huge lift to the sport stateside.
Earlier in the last-chance qualifier in Dubai, the U.S. had soundly beaten overmatched Kenya and Hong Kong, by a total of 96 points. But Portugal beat the same opponents by a little more, 113 points. That ended up being the difference between a trip to the World Cup and a four-year wait.