The Emirates Airline Summer Series visits Kennesaw, Ga., this summer, as the USA Men’s Eagles and Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw State University host the 12th-ranked Georgia Lelos Saturday, June 17, at 7 p.m. ET.
The venue has already held one important test match: a Rugby World Cup 2015 Qualifier between the Eagles and Uruguay in 2014. A near-sellout crowd emboldened a U.S. team coming off of a draw in South America to World Cup qualification. This time around, Head Coach John Mitchell’s Eagles will use their match outside Atlanta to prepare for their RWC 2019 Qualifier series against Canada.
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Though Georgia is ranked five spots higher than the U.S. in World Rugby’s rankings, the Americans have a historical advantage over their European counterparts. In four senior matchups since 2009, Georgia has won just one. Also in that span, the AIG Men’s Junior All-Americans beat Georgia at a World Rugby U20 Trophy.
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In the days of the Churchill Cup, the Eagles gained game time against ‘A’ sides of some of the top Tier One nations in addition to playing Canada and the Maori All Blacks. The seventh edition of the tournament – held between Infinity Park at Glendale and Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Colorado – welcomed the full side from Georgia to the competition. It marked the first time Georgia had traveled to North America for tests, playing both Canada and the U.S.
Georgia had lost pool matches to Canada and Ireland A while the Eagles fell to Argentina XV and England Saxons to set up a Bowl Final matchup, determining fifth and sixth place. The half-back duo of Mike Hercus and Tim Usasz combined for a try, conversion, and penalty kick in the opening 12 minutes, but the Eagles were unable to take advantage of a yellow card to a Georgian flanker to widen the gap. Georgia countered for a 10-10 score at halftime, but outside center Paul Emerick pounded his way through for an early second half try and Hercus kicked three more penalties for a 31-13 victory.
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Prior to 2009, Georgia had infrequently traveled outside of the confines of Europe and the British Isles; only for the 2003 World Cup and a 2004 tour of South America. So in the fall of 2010, both Canada and the U.S. flew to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Georgia had been replaced by Russia in that year’s Churchill Cup, also held in the United States, and offered challenges on and off of the field of play to better prepare the Americans for the next year’s World Cup in New Zealand.
Further in the quadrennial cycle, Georgia was more prepared for its traveling foes, and won both matches in an eight-day span. Emerick again found the try zone for the Eagles, who debuted a 25-year-old Samu Manoa in the starting XV’s second row alongside yellow-carded Hayden Smith, and fly half Nese Malifa and full back Chris Wyles each struck successful drop kicks. Malifa also hit two penalty goals to balance Georgia’s four three-point plays, but the teams were separated by replacement fly half Merab Kvirikashvili’s conversion, 19-17.
Each earning a single victory at Rugby World Cup 2011, Georgia and the U.S. met again to start a new cycle in 2012. Georgia had beaten Ukraine in Tbilisi a week from its scheduled date with the Eagles in Glendale, Colorado, and was sluggish in the face of the U.S. onslaught. Flanker Taylor Mokate, wing James Paterson, scrum half Mike Petri, and inside center Andrew Suniula all dotted down in Emerick’s 50th appearance in a U.S. jersey as the Eagles walked away with a 36-20 victory.
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The Eagles’ most recent match against Georgia was played in Rustavi as they kicked off their first unbeaten November Tour (following a non-rankings test against the Maori All Blacks in Philadelphia). Adam Siddall‘s first start at fly half was a momentous one as the Eagles searched for their first win of the year. The 16th-ranked Lelos had the home-field advantage – though a sizable portion of the crowd was made up of members of the American military – and used it to power out to a 10-0 lead. Wyles replied midway through the half with a try before wing Blaine Scully gave the team a 15-13 lead at halftime.
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Prop Nick Wallace channeled his inner back with a try to make it 22-13 before Georgia took a late, 23-22, lead with a converted try and a penalty within minutes of the final whistle. The Lelos were undone, however, when a penalty allowed Siddall to slot the match-winning, 25-23, kick. The Eagles would take the momentum to England, where they finished off the Tour with a defeat of Russia on neutral ground.
The Men’s Eagles Sevens do not often face Georgia as the Lelos sevens team has only participated in two HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series stops in the history of the circuit. The two were grouped together at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2013 in Moscow, however, opening pool play against one another at Luzhniki Stadium.
Nic Edwards, Colin Hawley, Folau Niua, and Zack Test all crossed the try line in a blitz of a first half to open the tournament and Shalom Suniula converted three of the four tries for a 26-7 lead. The advantage after seven minutes would hold through Georgia’s push-back for a 26-19 final, though the players exhibited some bad habits in the match that would haunt them through their Plate Quarterfinal exit.
The under-20 national teams of the two countries met in Hong Kong in 2014 at the World Rugby U20 Trophy. Young prop Titi Lamositele, who had made his senior debut with the Eagles just eight months prior, started alongside future Eagles Ben Cima, Hanco Germishuys, and Ben Tarr (as well as sevens Eagle and Olympian Ben Pinkelman) in the AIG Men’s Junior All-Americans‘ second pool match. Already 1-0 in the tournament, the MJAAs missed early opportunities to hammer Georgia. Georgia took a 3-0 lead following two missed kicks by Cima, who matched his opposite number’s output in the first half for a 6-6 score at the break.
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The Georgian fly half kicked off the second half with two successful penalty kicks within 10 minutes, but Germishuys ran over for the only try of the match 10 minutes from time to bring the MJAAs within one at 12-11. Cima made no mistake with the conversion, and the team held on for a 13-12 victory. The All-Americans ended their Trophy campaign with a third-place defeat of Uruguay after barely missing out on the Final due to a loss to eventual runner-up Tonga to finish pool play.
Mitchell’s Eagles went unbeaten in the second annual Americas Rugby Championship, using victories against Brazil, Canada, Chile, and Uruguay and a bonus-point draw with Argentina XV to secure their first competitive trophy in more than 90 years, accumulating their longest win streak since 2009-10. Their next match is scheduled against Tier One opponent and perennial streak-ender Ireland. The Emirates Airline Summer Series match will kick off from Red Bull Arena Saturday, June 10, at 4 p.m. ET.
A week later, the Eagles will revisit Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw State University, a 9,000-plus-seat stadium located within 30 miles of downtown Atlanta. The Lelos just had their own four-match win streak come to a halt, but are 7-3 in their last 10 games since last summer. The positive results in the past couple of years, including two victories at Rugby World Cup 2015, have seen Georgia rise in the World Rugby rankings to 12th.
Tickets for the June 17 international test in Kennesaw – scheduled to kick off at 7 p.m. ET – start at just $20 for individuals and $17 for groups. For more information, visit the Emirates Airline Summer Series page.