The second round of the Americas Rugby Championship, the premier tournament in the continent, will have games separated by a staggering 7,200 miles over the course of the next two days. Brazil will open the round against Uruguay in Sao Paulo on Friday, before Argentina XV host Chile in Ushuaia and Sacremento provides the latest chapter in the North American rivalry between USA and Canada a day later.
Brazil are also riding high after their first win in Chile saw them rise to their best ever position of 25th in the World Rugby Rankings. And they have largely kept faith with that team, the only change seeing Robert Tenório take the right-wing position and Lucas Muller dropping to the bench.
Brazil haven’t beaten Uruguay since 1964 but the corresponding match two years ago could have gone either way, Los Teros snatching a 33-29 victory with a try six minutes from time.
“We are certainly not taking them lightly,” insisted Uruguay assistant coach Oscar Durán.
Uruguay have been forced to make seven changes to the team that secured qualification for RWC 2019 with a 32-31 win over Canada in Montevideo last weekend. A strong-looking pack now contains most-capped Tero Diego Magno, who comes in for veteran Rodrigo Capó Ortega in the second row, while Rodolfo Garese is promoted from the bench as Franco Lamanna has also returned to club duty in Europe.
Only centre Juan Manuel Cat and full-back Rodrigo Silva remain in the backline as injuries, European club commitments and unavailability put pressure on coach Esteban Meneses. With his top three scrum-halves unavailable – two injured and one in Europe – Germán Albanell will come into the unfamiliar No.9 jersey with debutant Andrés de León his half-back partner.
The end of the world
For the second time in history Ushuaia – the southernmost city in the world – hosts the Argentina XV. They won 79-7 against Brazil the last time they played there 12 months ago but this weekend's line-up bears little resemblance.
Captain and former Puma Tomás de la Vega was one of the few to get a run out that day and knows that his side will have to expect the unexpected in terms of the city’s unique climate. “The weather is impossible to prepare for,” he said. “During a game, you can have sun, rain, hail or wind and it is a great leveller,” said the Argentine XV flanker.
Mindful of the extensive travel undertaken by his side in going from Los Angeles to Ushuaia via Houston and Buenos Aires, coach Felipe Contepomi has chosen to rotate his squad with just two players retained from last week's 17-10 defeat to the USA.
Chile have lost captain José Ignacio Larenas and fly-half Santiago Videla to injury and know they will have to be at the top of their game if they are to compete with the 2016 champions, who will no doubt enjoy vociferous home support.
“We need to get better at things that didn’t work for us against Brazil,” said Chile coach Mark Cross. “The weather will be an issue for both teams.”
With confidence sky high after last week’s tense victory over Argentina XV, defending champions USA take on a Canadian side still reeling from last week’s failure to beat Uruguay to the Americas 2 slot at RWC 2019.
It was back in June/July, however, that the Canucks’ ever-present record on the game’s greatest stage was first put in doubt, following an 80-44 aggregate defeat to the USA in the home-and-away Americas 1 play-off.
After the first leg in Ontario was drawn 28-28, the Eagles recorded an emphatic 52-16 victory in the return match in San Diego. It was the second time that year they had put 50 points on the Canadians in the space of five months having defeated them 51-34 when they met in the Americas Rugby Championship in Vancouver.
Considering they’d never scored a half-century of points against Canada in nearly three decades of trying before then, those results help to underline the shift of power from one country to another.
Canada are a proud rugby nation and losing out to their closest rivals for an automatic place at RWC 2019 will have hurt deeply. Aware that a wounded opponent is a dangerous one, Eagles head coach Gary Gold expects no quarter to be asked nor given.
Tough challenge awaits
“The team is working incredibly hard to prepare for a tough game against Canada,” he said. “That win over a tough Argentinian squad has given us the confidence to show what we can do as a unit and we’ll be looking to putting on another good performance and build on the momentum in front of another home crowd.
“With a lot of emotion in this next game, our focus will be on the areas we know we need to master as a team.”
The game will be especially emotional for Eagles captain Blaine Scully who is looking forward to taking the pitch in the city where he grew up.
“Representing the United States is always a tremendous honour, but to be able to do it in Sacramento, my hometown, in front of family and friends, makes it a little extra special,” said Scully.
For Canada, it is a case of dusting themselves down and taking the positives from a much-improved display in the second leg against Uruguay in Montevideo last Saturday. The Canucks raced into a 15-0 lead on the night and it was only when home centre Andres Vilaseca scored the second of his opportunist tries late on that the game was up.
The remaining games in the Americas Rugby Championship and June's test programme will be vital in preparing Canada for their last shot at redemption – the four-team global repechage that awaits them in November.
A key figure in that bid will be DTH van der Merwe, who scored two tries on the night in the Americas 2 play-off and three across the home-and-away series, with the winger set to win his 50th cap against the Eagles.
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Americas Rugby Championship 2018 - Round 5
CHILE v CANADA: 17-33
URUGUAY v USA: 19-61
BRAZIL v ARGENTINA XV: 8-28