Three tries from Danny Howard and another superb performance by skipper Mark Offerdahl saw the USA become the eleventh nation to qualify for the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, after they beat Canada 34-24 in a wonderful winner-takes-all clash against Canada at the Hodges Stadium, Jacksonville, Florida.
The Hawks qualify for their second successive World Cup, after making the quarter finals in 2013, new head coach for the qualifying series, Brian McDermott, ending a sensational season with a further triumph, having taken Leeds Rhinos to a domestic treble.
McDermott switched Los Angeles-born Danny Howard to the second row from centre, where he had played in the narrow win over Jamaica in game one, to team up with brother Steve and it proved to be a masterstroke, as did moving Ryan Burroughs to full back when Corey Makelim was sent off for dissent just after the half hour.
Burrough’s superb linking runs from the back continually pushed Canada back after they threatened to create history by reaching the World Cup for the first time, the Wolverines leading 18-14 at the break, although eventually beaten by eight tries to four.
Hooker Ryley Jacks, who persisted despite injury and also crossed for three tries, and his brother stand off Rhys – along with ‘the Sheriff’ Jamie Kelly – were superb for the visitors, who were looking for their fourth successive win over the Hawks.
But, late on, when chasing the win they needed after drawing with Jamaica, Canada were undone when forcing passes that didn’t go to hand.
“The performance was right up there in terms of courage and determination,” said McDermott. “It wasn’t the flashest performance ever, there were one or two things we needed to be better at, but after having a man sent off at the back end of the first half to then get over a very competitive Canada just shows how much determination and desire the players had.
“I’m immensely proud, we qualified for the World Cup which was the first objective but it’s been a really enjoyable camp for the last two weeks and the players have given absolutely everything.
“Canada are a good team and we were worried at 18-all. They’ve already beaten America twice this year and we were under no illusions how good they were going to be. The whole second half was a real worrying time and they deserve a lot of credit as well.”
Understandably, with what was at stake, there were tears from both sides when the hooter went.
Canada coach Aaron Zimmerle commented: “There were periods in the game where it was our opportunity to take control of the match but credit to America they really stood up.
“Some of their go-to players were able to pull out the big plays when needed, they capitalized well late when we were trying to force the issue and made an error. But, as this whole tournament has showed, every time we’re down and out, we find a way to claw back into the game.”
Canada co-captain Piatek noted: “I would like to congratulate the USA for their victory. We worked very hard and to even be involved in the World Cup qualifiers themselves was a sign of how far we have come. We have four years now to take the sport in Canada to new levels and we’ll be ready to try to qualify again.”