The second round of the Americas Rugby Championship kicks off on Friday night when Uruguay, winners against Canada on the opening weekend, take on Chile.
On Saturday, Brazil host Canada, with both teams looking to open their accounts, while the past three seasons of the continent's marquee competition suggest that the game between two-time defending champions, USA, and 2016 winners Argentina XV has the potential to be an early title decider.
In a tournament where the standards go up every year, each game is a story in itself, an opportunity to continue developing. While Brazil, Canada and Chile need to recover from first-round losses, Uruguay will look to build momentum and Os Tupis will want to repeat their win against the Canadians two seasons ago.
Uruguay (17) v Chile (29)
A Los Teros legend as a player and coach, Pablo Lemoine's return to the Charrúa Stadium, that he helped to build, will no doubt be an emotional occasion. All of his professionalism will be needed to stay focused on his new role as Chilean coach.
The former prop understands the big differences between both countries. Uruguay, already qualified for Rugby World Cup 2019, has benefitted from the high-performance unit that Lemoine helped to establish and nurture for a few years, while Los Cóndores, under his instruction, are only now starting to embrace the concept.
Their 71-8 round-one loss to the USA Eagles showcased that there is a long road ahead.
For Uruguay second-row, Diego Magno, the challenge is proving the difference on the pitch. "We are expected to be a few steps ahead of Chile and our challenge, as favourites, is to be able to prove that difference. We worked this week on the mental side of the game."
Uruguay's most-capped player, Magno, was Lemoine’s team-mate at the Montevideo Cricket Club and at international level and was later coached by one of the stars of the game in the region.
“I am very happy that he is helping another national team; he will bring a lot to Chile although I hope not too much!" he laughs. “It is tough for us as we are expected to win. Our toughest opponent is ourselves."
Uruguay have beaten Chile in all three previous editions of the ARC and the margin of victory has increased each year. From a narrow 23-20 win in the first encounter, they have since won 45-14 and 67-15.
Brazil (28) v Canada (20)
Canada's only previous trip to Brazil in 2017 left a bitter taste as they were beaten 24-23 after Moisés Duque converted Lucas Tranquez's late try from a wide angle.
For Brazil, the goal is to make the most of home advantage again, even if such a thing barely existed in the competition in 2018. Of the 15 matches played at ARC 2017, only 56 per cent were won by the home side.
Around half the players on show, that day, will reconvene at the Estadio Martins Pereira in Sao Paulo.
“We’ve trained on a few things that failed against Argentina XV. We hope to play better and use the opportunities against a very physical, solid team,” said 2017 hero Duque.
“We expect a tough game but I think if we can stick to a game plan we will have our chances. The outcome will depend on how we perform.
“I hope we can get the match won earlier and not with the final kick,” he laughs.
Canada know they cannot afford to trip up again as they did on Saturday. As an added incentive, a big win coupled with a big Russian loss will put them back in the world's top 20. The prize for a big Brazilian win is rising to their highest-ever ranking of 25th.
Argentina XV v USA
With two draws and a narrow victory in their three previous clashes, it is an understatement to say that these sides are well-matched.
Argentina snatched a 35-35 draw with a late try in the opening encounter in 2016, which was good enough for them to be crowned inaugural champions. And, a year later, in what was a winner-takes-all fifth-round game, it also finished all-square, at 27-27, Ben Cima's late penalty completing a remarkable comeback from 15 points down. After a few seconds of anxiously waiting to hear their fate, the Eagles understood that the bonus-point draw had given them enough tournament points to win the ARC.
Last year's game was also pointing towards another draw. An Argentine attacking scrum was advancing into the in-goal area in the final few seconds for what seemed a certain game-equalling try when would-be Puma Rodrigo Bruni lost the ball. USA won 17-10 and eventually took their second Championship.
Eagles coach Gary Gold knows the standard of Saturday’s opposition. “We have kept track on how things have changed under new coach Fernández Lobbe. We have done a lot of homework over the past year,” he says.
“It is going a really big battle from a set-piece point of view,” adds Gold, recognising that discipline will be crucial. “We have to keep the penalty count down because we don’t want to give them opportunities.”
Photo: Travis Prior/KLC Fotos
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