(Watch video highlights from USA-Ireland here.)

American Hayden Smith gets leverage during the Eagles’ opening match against Ireland on Sunday in New Plymouth. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)

The Irish — who had won all six previous meetings — were too much for the U.S. to handle up front, and they dictated play with an aggressive scrum from the opening minutes. But even in a 22-10 defeat, the Americans left the field with heads held high on an emotional day of remembrance after center Paul Emerick intercepted a looping pass and sprinted in for the Eagles’ lone try on the last play of the contest.

The U.S. defensive play was particularly inspiring for an undersized team as they were quick to the ball and tackled well. There were a total of 166 tackles in the match — 101 of them made by the U.S. That was enough to earn the praise of their Irish coach, Eddie O’Sullivan:

“We were under pressure at the scrum especially and we were punished at key stages of the game but overall I can't ­complain. They put in a huge per­formance and with the intercept try at the end I think we probably deserved the break for our effort. I'm disappointed obviously at losing the game but I'd have to say that I couldn't criticize the team for the effort they put in.”

The display from the Americans continued an early trend of grit and tenacity from non-traditional rugby powers, referred to as “the minnow nations” at the sport’s biggest competition. Romania led Scotland in the second half and Namibia, fresh off a 142-0 loss to Australia, held a 12-7 lead against Fiji early on.

“It’s great to see some of these tier-two nations giving the higher ranked teams a good run for their money,” said U.S. fullback Chris Wyles. “It’s great seeing these teams do well, and it’s only good for the game as well.”

For their part, the Irish did little to back the efforts of their bruisers up front. Their passing was sloppy in wet conditions and fly-half Jonny Sexton missed four of six kicks before he was subbed out after 51 minutes. And despite controlling the opening half, Ireland was held without a try until the final play of the opening stanza when Tommy Bowe scored the first of his two on the night.

On the whole, it was a troubling evening for a side looking to shake a run of recent struggles — the Irish had lost four straight overall leading up to the tournament — and will should generate a few more nibbled fingernails back home for a nation hopeful for a run to the semifinals. No doubt the Irish will need drastic improvements to stand a chance against Tri-Nations champions Australia, which rolled over Italy 32-6 in its opener.

“We didn’t play well, we really had to fight for our win and we have got a hell of a lot to work on,” captain Brian O’Driscoll said. “We turned the ball over too much. Our performance was typified by the last play of the game. We have got a big challenge now against Australia on Saturday.”

The best match of the opening weekend featured reigning world champions South Africa and Wales. After going ahead 16-10 in the second half, the Welsh had two kicks to re-take the lead late but missed both and the Springboks survived 17-16.

Next up for the United States is a matchup with Russia on Thursday. Kick is scheduled for 3:30 a.m. EST.

Full scoreboard:

Pool A - New Zealand 41, Tonga 10; France 47, Japan 21

Pool B - Scotland 34, Romania 24; England 13, Argentina 9

Pool C - Ireland 22, USA 10; Australia 32, Italy 6

Pool D - Fiji 49, Namibia 25; South Africa 17, Wales 16