AFTER 60 years of false dawns and half a decade of bitter civil war, American rugby league celebrated its finest hour in a midweek West Country rain squall at Bristol’s Memorial Ground.
When Mike Dimitro’s American All Stars toured Australia in 1953, there were overtures for the United States to be invited to the first World Cup – in France – the following year.
Their eventual exclusion became the first of a litany of snubbings, missed opportunities, hair-brained schemes and outlandish promotions for rugby league in the land of hype and glory since.
But when the Americans finally made it to the Coup Du Monde on Wednesday, they made their mark and declared afterwards there was finally something to build on and end the bitter internal wrangling and cycle of disappointment.
Late tries to prop Mark Offerdahl and halfback Craig Priestly secured a 32-20 win for the Tomahawks over a Cooks side including NRL stars Drury Low, Issac John, Dylan Napa, Brad Takairangi, Dylan Napa and more.
“To be honest, it’s probably the proudest win I’ve been involved with,” said Penrith’s Clint Newton, who as the son of golfer Jack was born in Myrtle Beach.
“Everyone thought we were just here to make up the numbers.
Key figures in American league had roundly criticised the number of heritage players selected by the Tomahawks, with incumbent captain Apple Pope missing the squad altogether.
Coach Terry Matterson and players called on the detractors to support them now the Tomahawks off to a winning start. “if they could just be here and see the bond the boys have built,” said Matterson, “it’s amazing”.
Newton added: “USA Tomahawks needed to field the best possible team to give it the exposure it needed to hopefully grow the game in the States.
“By that result tonight, hopefully people will say ‘this is something we can persevere with.
“I’d like to think (critics) will get behind us. Instead of throwing the knives in, let’s support it and be positive.”
When five-eighth Takairangi scored after only only six minutes, the portents were not good for an American team drawn from everywhere between the NRL and Hawaiian rugby union.
But winger Bareta Faramaimo dashed over off halfback Priestly in the 13th minute and then former Parramatta and Gold Coast winger Matt Petersen took his chance on the other side of the field.
Canterbury’s Low tied it up at 10-10 for the break and, as was the case the previous night with Tonga, Cook Islands seemed destined to win comfortably.
But when Tomahawks captain Joseph Paulo dotted down after regaining a kick a minute after the resumption of play, it was clear the US were not willing to fill the role of unlucky losers.
The sides exchanged tries before the moments that defined the event: replacement Offerdahl taking captain Joseph Paulo’s pass to score in the 71st minute and then Priestly winning the race to the ball two minutes later.
Cooks coach David Fairleigh said his men “lost some ball control at critical moments. This competition so far has been one of upsets.”
UNITED STATES 32 (Bureta Faraimo, Matt Petersen, Joseph Paulo, Tui Samoa, Mark Offerdahl, Craig Priestly tries; Paulo 4 goals) beat COOK ISLANDS 20 (Brad Takairangi, Drury Low, Lulia Lulia, Domique Peyroux tries; Rapana 2 goals) at Memorial Ground, Bristol. Referee: Ben Thaler (England). Crowd: 7247.
Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD