THE USA Tomahawks have made history, defying all expectations except their own to win their inaugural RLWC match against the Cook Islands.
On the day the Tomahawks landed their first major sponsor, ITC Secure Networking, the players re-paid that support with a gutsy 32-20 victory at Bristol Memorial Stadium to shock the world.
Played in persistent rain and strong winds, the contest in soccer-mad city Bristol attracted a fantastic crowd of 7,247.
Post-match, Tomahawks’ players paid tribute to the bond among the team which was created through the fact they are all literally playing for the pride of their jersey.
This is a side that receives no wage on tour or even a weekly allowance.
Before the Rugby League World Cup, many players had to fork out their own cash for airfares to play for the Tomahawks.
That willingness to represent America was shown throughout a brutal Bristol affair.
The Tomahawks’ thrilling win was only sealed in the final minutes when halfback Craig Priestly delivered his greatest sermon.
In a defining 73rd minute play, Priestly, who owns a rugby league club in the Hamptons, New York, somehow grabbed a towering Joseph Paulo bomb to crash over the line as three Cook Islands players stood and watched.
A late penalty took the score to 32-20.
Priestly, a former Redcliffe Dolphin, said this victory would help build the code in America.
“Joseph was inside me and he said he was going to put it up and I ran through, didn’t take my eyes off the ball, and it just stuck,” Priestly said.
“This has to be number one in terms of important moments for USA rugby league.
“This is only on the back of the hard work of David Niu.
“Niu got us here. For us to make the World Cup and win our first match then this has to be right up there for our code in America.
“I started a new rugby league team out in the Hamptons called the Dragons and I hope the effort we showed tonight can help build the game back in America.”
Coach Terry Matterson said the players’ effort to overcome a rough schedule was tremendous.
“The highlight for USA rugby league before this game was the win against France, so we have made another one tonight,” Matterson said.
“That was nothing less than these guys deserved.
“They have come together, they did not know each well at all and they went through some adversity.
“But we had a good trial win in France and we have had a great time together and I am so proud of these guys.
“To do that after such a short preparation, and to come from behind a couple of times, once because of a real tough decision on one of their tries, means I am over the moon.
“We have three games in nine days so it is not going to be easy as Wales have been sitting down for four days.”
The Cook Islands began the match strongly, opening the scoring in the third minute through make-shift five-eighth Brad Takairangi.
The early exchanges were brutal but the USA built pressure from the accurate kicking game of halves Priestly and captain Joseph Paulo.
A Priestly 40/20 kick gave the Tomahawks their first full set on the Cook Islands’ line and then a back line move found winger Bureta Faraimo who crashed over.
That feat meant Faraimo, who is in the crosshairs of several NRL clubs, became the Tomahawks’ inaugural RLWC try-scorer.
The Tomahawks scored again in the next set when a bomb found open space before New Jersey native Michael Garvey passed to veteran winger Matt Petersen to slide over.
The conversion was unsuccessful, leaving the USA with an 8-6 lead.
In the 25th minute, the Tomahawks took a penalty to increase the lead to 10-6.
Five minutes before half time, the Cook Islands pelted the Tomahawks’ line and despite repeated try-saving tackles from Garvey and Tui Samoa, their fullback Drury Low eventually slid through to ensure the teams went to the sheds at 10-10.
The second 40 began brilliantly for the Tomahawks when man of the match Paulo charged down a Takairangi kick, collected the loose ball 40 metres out and had enough pace to get over the line.
The thrilling nature of the contest continued as the Cook Islands returned serve through a back-line play that created space for Lulia Lulia to level scores.
After a barnstorming run from Faraimo drew a penalty, the Tomahawks took full advantage when an offload fell to live wire rake Samoa who darted ten metres to score.
Paulo’s successful conversion ensured a six point lead, but there was another twist in this story.
After marching down the field, Cook Islands centre Dom Peyroux pounced on a loose ball following a bomb to level again.
Then came a wonderful short ball from Paulo to send irrepressible forward Mark Offerdahl, who was sensational all night, through a small gap to score and restore the USA’s lead.
The Tomahawks’ best play was saved for last as the Priestly wonder-take delivered a moment for America and the rugby league world to savour.
The USA play Wales in Wrexham this Sunday.
USA 32 (Tries: Bureta Faraimo, Matt Petersen, Joseph Paulo, Tui Samoa, Mark Offerdahl, Craig Priestly; Goals: Joseph Paulo 2 goals, 2 penalties) def Cook Islands 20 (Tries: Takairangi, Low, L. Lulia, Peyroux; Goals Rapana 2) at Bristol Memorial Stadium.
Follow the USA progress at www.facbook.com/usatomahawks and @usatomahawks