Mike Petri‘s first-half try was the difference as the United States claimed its third-ever victory at the Rugby World Cup. (David Gray/Reuters)

(Watch video highlights of the Eagles’ 13-6 win over Russia here.)

As a relatively young rugby nation, it can be difficult for the United States to measure progress at the Rugby World Cup. Victories against the game’s elite powers are very rare, making matchups with fellow so-called “minnow” nations vital proving grounds for a team trying to climb the ladder from afterthought to competitor.

Photos from the 2011 Rugby World Cup

With such an opportunity before them Thursday in water-logged New Plymouth, New Zealand, the Eagles took full advantage, spoiling Russia’s tournament opener with a 13-6 victory. The win was only the third ever for the Americans at the competition.

“It’s an awesome feeling,” captain Todd Clever said. “I’m proud of the boys for sticking through.”

Playing on only four days rest following their 22-10 loss to Ireland in their opener, the U.S. knew it needed to address its struggles up front and on its line-outs. Improved execution by both units proved critical in a gritty, low-scoring match.

Tim Usasz (center) celebrates with Louis Stanfill (R) and his incredible mullet following the Eagles’ 13-6 win against Russia. (Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images)

From there, the U.S. overcame an initial push from Russia’s scrum to dominate possession — aided by a pair of stolen line-out passes — in the opening half and wear down the Bears’ defense.

With the score tied at 3-3 in the 18th minute, Petri slid over the line for a momentous try in between the posts that capped a string of well-timed passes and confident runs for the Americans. The U.S. went into the half with a 13-3 advantage and added to it with another Chris Wyles penalty in the 64th minute. Russia pulled within 13-6 following Konstantin Rachkov’s penalty goal 13 minutes later but the U.S. held strong in the waning moments to secure the win with cheers of “USA! USA!” reigning down from the stands.

The Eagles get eight days to recover and prepare for their next Pool C match against Australia on Sept. 23, and they’ll need all of them. The Wallabies trounced Italy 32-6 in their opener and are fresh off a Tri Nations championship. They’re 6-0 all time against the U.S., who will be looking to keep the match close and build further confidence ahead of their pool finale against Italy.

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