TOYOTA PARK, Chicago -- The Maori All Blacks eased to an eight-try 54-7 victory over a depleted U.S. Eagles side but in front of a near sold out Toyota Park, it marked the perfect start to the double-header in Chicago.
It was like a rugby reunion with 18,700 lovers of the other oval-ball game flocking to this corner of the Windy City to watch an Eagles side, without a number of their top players, face a Maori team focused on pride and a group keen to prove their potential All Black credentials.
Akira Ioane was a constant menace with deft offloads causing all sorts of bamboozlement in the Eagles' ranks. He finished with two tries while winger James Lowe also grabbed a brace with Ash Dixon, Kane Hames, Brad Weber and Joe Royal also scoring. But the biggest cheer of the evening was reserved for Todd Clever's 49th-minute score for the hosts, one met with an outpouring of celebration in this momentous of weeks in Chicago.
The Eagles battled valiantly but when you are without the likes of Samu Manoa, Chris Wyles, AJ MacGinty and Blaine Scully then that missing spine of experience means calm heads were at times lacking, particularly in their exit plays which usually resulted in wayward kicking.
MacGinty was the absence felt hardest in the Eagles' ranks as they badly needed a controlling presence at fly-half to give them essential field position and in the first-half in particular, any chance to counter or slow the game down inevitably ended with the Maoris storming back.
It was noticeable that their most assured players, bar the hugely experienced Clever, were their Sevens contingent with Matei Lueta and Folau Niua influential in attack while Danny Barrett also impressed.
But despite some valiant performances, the result was never to be in doubt. The Maori's most influential player was No.8 Ioane but captain Dixon was also a force in the set-piece and at the breakdown.
Two of the Maori's eight tries were wonderful efforts. Lowe's second in the first-half came off the back of a neat nudge through from Ihaia West which saw Matt Proctor offload to the waiting winger for a wonderfully crafted score. Then Hames belied his loose-head role to canter in for a second-half score after more effective attacking from Ioane.
Damian McKenzie was also assured as ever as he impressed in front of the watching British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland with the Maori lying in wait for them next summer on their tour of New Zealand.
The true impact of this match will be felt in the future. This was an inexperienced Eagles side - one with four amateurs in the starting 15 - but it will prove to be a valuable exercise for their coach John Mitchell with Romania lying in wait next.
The Maori will now sit in the stands to watch the All Blacks face Ireland in Saturday's main course at Soldier Field. But as starters go, this wasn't a bad way to get this rugby double-header underway.