With the iconic Webb Ellis Cup gleaming on the sideline, Canada and USA will go toe to toe again this weekend at Tim Horton’s Field in Hamilton, Ontario, for the latest chapter in an enduring story of sporting rivalry that is one of rugby’s fiercest and hardest fought.
The Americas 1 qualification spot for Rugby World Cup 2019 is up for grabs with Saturday’s showdown being the first of two legs in what is sure to be an epic battle between these two sides. After Hamilton, the action shifts to San Diego next Saturday with the winners on an aggregate score-line joining England, France, Argentina and Oceania 2 in Pool C of rugby’s pinnacle tournament.
History suggests that Canada should be favourites, having won 38, lost 17 and drawn once against their continental neighbours. They have also won 15 out of 19 all-time Rugby World Cup qualification matches. But, crucially, USA have been victorious in the past five encounters, including their most recent meeting at the Americas Rugby Championship 2017 in Burnaby, British Columbia. Indeed, Canada have not beaten the Eagles since August 2013 when they won both legs of their Rugby World Cup 2015 qualifier.
USA will be chomping at the bit to do what they have never before done – qualify for a RWC as the top North American side. And equally, this Canada side will believe they have something to prove to their supporters following some disappointing results in recent times.
A win will build confidence
Canada’s head coach Mark Anscombe said: “It’s very important to win the first game. Whoever gets victory is one up in a two-test series so it’s crucial we take the advantage of home field. It’ll be harder to go to San Diego with a loss and a win would build a lot of confidence.”
Having picked “the best team available”, Anscombe has opted for Oakville Crusaders’ favourite Djustice Sears-Duru in the front row along with Ray Barkwill and Jake Ilnicki while Evan Olmstead joins pack leader Brett Beukeboom at lock. Admir Cejvanovic and Matt Heaton start at flanker with the always impressive Tyler Ardron at No. 8.
The experienced Phil Mack is at scrum-half while Shane O’Leary starts at fly-half. Taylor Paris is joined on the wing by Andrew Coe while Connor Braid and Newcastle Falcons’ DTH van der Merwe get the nod in the centres. Newfoundland’s Ciaran Hearn starts at full-back.
USA are currently six places above Canada on the World Rugby Rankings and it’s worth noting that Canada will drop below Hong Hong to 24th place should they lose on Saturday but equally they will rise two places to 21st above Germany and Namibia if they win. At this game, USA cannot improve upon or drop from their current position of 17th.
Swansong for Captain America
The Americans believe their preparation has been good and they are peaking at the right time for these vitally important games. Led by the USA’s all-time record cap-winner Todd Clever – the man they call Captain America – the Eagles will be anxious to give him a send-off his stellar career deserves after he recently announced his intention to retire from international rugby after the San Diego leg of the qualifier.
Having made his debut in 2003, Clever (pictured above at RWC 2011 in New Zealand) has earned 74 caps so far with nearly three-quarters of them coming as captain. The 34-year-old Californian is ready to go out on a high.
Clever said: "There have been many ups and downs in those 15 years representing the USA. I've left everything on the field and did everything for my team-mates, which makes this process a bit easier. But leaving on my own terms, on home soil, in front of friends and family will be special and I just want to make sure we get the job done. Rugby is the ultimate team sport and I consider all my team-mates to be my brothers.”
Head coach John Mitchell's squad welcomes the return of recent debutant Paddy Ryan to the front row for a second cap, while the young back line that combined for four tries in their 51-34 defeat of the border rival earlier this year account for 31 appearances.
Eagles on the right track
The Eagles, who won the Americas Rugby Championship in the spring, lost both warm-up games for this qualifier against Ireland and Georgia but Mitchell maintains they are still on the right track.
“Both of our summer contests have been really good for us. Ireland provided a lot of variety in attack and Georgia were big and strong in the set piece. We've been stressed enough to be able to understand what we'll need to bring in the next 10 days. Playing third- and 12th-ranked teams in the world has been ideal preparation for us.
"We are really excited for this series, as you wait four years for this and you do not want to miss it, especially since it has never been achieved in USA Eagles RWC-qualifying history, which gives you an indication of the enormity of the task. The lads have put in a tremendous amount of quality work and have realized there is healthy competition for places dictated by a focus on nailing our key skills to improve our chance to win.”
Hooker James Hilterbrand and Tony Purpura maintain their places in the starting 15 alongside Ryan, while Nick Civetta comes back into the side to partner Ben Landry in the second row. Clever will start for what will be his 18th test against Canada with No. 8 Cam Dolan and flanker John Quill completing the pack.
Positional changes for USA
Vice-captain Nate Augspurger returns to the scrum-half’s jersey after a try-scoring campaign on the wing in Georgia last weekend, with AJ MacGinty also swapping shirts to start at fly-half. Matai Leuta kept play alive for the Eagles' final try in the 21-17 loss, while Ryan Matyas already has one try to his name during the current assembly. The pair will patrol the wings outside Marcel Brache and Bryce Campbell. Mike Te'o recorded a hat-trick against Canada in February from the full-back position and will cover the backs from the same spot on Saturday.
Professionals Andrew Durutalo and David Tameilau are available to Mitchell in the reserves, along with one of last weekend's try-scorers in Matt Jensen in a forward-heavy bench. Ben Cima and Shaun Davies are the backs in the six-two split.
Saturday’s game kicks off at 15:00 local time and can be seen live on TSN in Canada and the Rugby Channel in the USA.
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