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American Rugby Team Handles Celebrated English Foe

  • Nate Brakely, of Marblehead, Mass., carries the ball for Cambridge during their match against the U.S. Collegiate All-American rugby team at Dartmouth's Garipay Field in Hanover, N.H., on June 21, 2014. Brakeley played for Dartmouth, graduating in 2012 and playing for Cambridge while studying for a master's degree. He currently plays for the New York Athletic Club. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    Nate Brakely, of Marblehead, Mass., carries the ball for Cambridge during their match against the U.S. Collegiate All-American rugby team at Dartmouth's Garipay Field in Hanover, N.H., on June 21, 2014. Brakeley played for Dartmouth, graduating in 2012 and playing for Cambridge while studying for a master's degree. He currently plays for the New York Athletic Club. (Valley News - Will Parson)

  • U.S. Collegiate All-American rugby team members Ben Landry, right, and Harrison Higgins leave the field after their match against Cambridge at Dartmouth's Garipay Field in Hanover, N.H., on June 21, 2014. The All-Americans won, 27-15. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    U.S. Collegiate All-American rugby team members Ben Landry, right, and Harrison Higgins leave the field after their match against Cambridge at Dartmouth's Garipay Field in Hanover, N.H., on June 21, 2014. The All-Americans won, 27-15. (Valley News - Will Parson)

  • Madison Hughes kicks the ball during the U.S. Collegiate All-American rugby team's  match against Cambridge at Dartmouth's Garipay Field in Hanover, N.H., on June 21, 2014. Hughes, a team captain, will be a senior at Dartmouth in the fall. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    Madison Hughes kicks the ball during the U.S. Collegiate All-American rugby team's match against Cambridge at Dartmouth's Garipay Field in Hanover, N.H., on June 21, 2014. Hughes, a team captain, will be a senior at Dartmouth in the fall. (Valley News - Will Parson)

  • Nate Brakely, of Marblehead, Mass., carries the ball for Cambridge during their match against the U.S. Collegiate All-American rugby team at Dartmouth's Garipay Field in Hanover, N.H., on June 21, 2014. Brakeley played for Dartmouth, graduating in 2012 and playing for Cambridge while studying for a master's degree. He currently plays for the New York Athletic Club. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • U.S. Collegiate All-American rugby team members Ben Landry, right, and Harrison Higgins leave the field after their match against Cambridge at Dartmouth's Garipay Field in Hanover, N.H., on June 21, 2014. The All-Americans won, 27-15. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • Madison Hughes kicks the ball during the U.S. Collegiate All-American rugby team's  match against Cambridge at Dartmouth's Garipay Field in Hanover, N.H., on June 21, 2014. Hughes, a team captain, will be a senior at Dartmouth in the fall. (Valley News - Will Parson)

Hanover — Score round one to the Americans.

In the first of a two-game series against a vaunted Cambridge (England) University on Saturday, the U.S. Collegiate All-American rugby team withstood a second-half rally by its British counterparts and won, 27-15, at Dartmouth College’s Brophy Field.

The teams meet again Wednesday at the Irish Cultural Centre in Canton, Mass.

In a highly physical game during the run of play and, at times, after the whistle, the U.S. scored twice in a 2-minute, 5-second span late in the second half to preserve the win.

The Americans had built a 17-3 halftime advantage before Cambridge scored twice out of tight play — the latter a dash from about 20 meters out by former Dartmouth College player Nate Brakeley — to pull within 17-15 with 20 minutes to play.

Burly Kutztown (Pa.) University senior Michael Lawrenson bowled in from short range for the U.S. at 27:55 and, about two minutes later, speedy American forward Paris Hollis screamed down the sideline from midfield on a pass from Kingsley McGowan to make it 27-15.

Responding to Cambridge’s rally with two tries was enough to impress U.S. coach Matt Sherman.

“(Cambridge) had the wind at their backs in the second half and we lost momentum there for a little while, but we were able to reverse it,” the Stanford University coach said. “I was proud of the guys for that. ... Our mentality was that we knew were going to face a lot of pressure from them and that we’d have to figure out how to respond as a team, and it paid off.”

After getting pushed backward during many of the early scrums, the U.S. gave up less ground against its physically larger counterparts as the match wore on. The Americans’ progress on set pieces was exemplified with about five minutes to go, when Cambridge nearly shoved its way across the try line to make it a one-score game again, but the U.S. pushed back mightily at the last moment and eventually forced a turnover.

“Hats off to the Americans there, because that’s do or die right there, isn’t it?” said second-year Cambridge coach Andy Key. “If we score there, it’s a much more interesting final five minutes.”

A penalty goal by the U.S.’ Niku Kruger, who finished with seven points, in the third minute gave the U.S. an early 3-0 lead, but he later missed from 18 meters and neither team penetrated much for the next 20 minutes. Most of the action came on the sidelines, where there were numerous skirmishes after the whistle. As Cambridge tried to assert its size advantage, the U.S. wouldn’t be intimidated.

Cambridge’s Andrew Murdoch and the Americans’ Vili Toluta’u received first-half yellow cards.

U.S. captain Madison Hughes, who recently wrapped up his junior year at Dartmouth, continually urged his side to stay focused.

“I just kept telling them it’s a long game and that we needed to keep up the pressure on the field,” said Hughes, who played left wing and missed a pair of wide-angle conversion kicks in the second half. “There was a lot of physicality out there, and some of it boiled over (after the whistle).”

The Americans scored the first try of the game at 22:05, McGowan splitting defenders to dash in from 15 meters following a pass from San Diego State senior Konrad Kaleikaumaka for five points. Kruger’s 2-point conversion kick made it 10-0.

Cambridge got on the board at the 33-minute mark, Sam Allen hitting a penalty kick from 26 meters to pull the British side within 10-3.

Five minutes, later the U.S. extended its lead, Hollis jaunting the sideline for a try on a pass from Kruger, whose ensuing conversion kick put the Americans ahead 17-3 at halftime.

Key attributed rust to his side’s early struggles.

“Our season ended in March, and the boys are all coming off exams,” the Cambridge coach said. “We also have some guys who haven’t played on the university team in one or two years and have only been playing with the other guys for a couple weeks. We knew it was going to take 25-30 minutes to get the wind into our sails.”

Cambridge’s Charlie O’Sullivan scampered in on the right side 6:10 into the second half, with Allen’s conversion kick pulling the English team within 17-10.

Brakeley — a 2012 Dartmouth graduate who played for Cambridge while getting his master’s degree there — is one of the players who hadn’t suited up with the team in a few years. He played the whole second half Saturday and made an impact, scooting in for a try from 20 meters after digging the ball out of a maul (live scrum) and hitting the sideline.

Allen missed the conversion kick to keep the score 17-15. The U.S. pulled away from there.

“Our guys were doing a great job pushing back and I was able to kind of rumble off and sneak in,” said Brakeley, who now plays for the New York Athletic Club rugby team in New York City.

Brakeley was an asset for Cambridge despite not arriving in Hanover until Friday.

“A lot of the systems haven’t changed from two years ago, and there are seven or eight guys still on the team that I played with,” he said. “It wasn’t that hard to get back into it.”

Key is hoping his side will be better prepared when it plays a rematch with the Americans on Wednesday south of Boston.

“After the game loosened up a bit, I think it favored the Americans,” he said. “But that’s what’s great about this setup. We get to play them again in four days.”

Bonus Points: The Collegiate Barbarians of Ontario beat the U.S. second team, 35-32, in the second game of the twin bill. ... USA Rugby assistant coach Billy Millard was on hand and took notes. ... Third-year Dartmouth rugby coach Gavin Hickie assisted Sherman after leading the Big Green to the quarterfinals in both 15s and sevens national college tournaments this season. ... Cambridge has lost four straight games against English rival Oxford in a marquee game played each December known as “The Varsity Match.” Cambridge leads the all-time series, 61-57-14. ... Attendance was strong at Brophy Field, a grassy knoll near the west goal filled about 20 rows deep.

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.