The fourth edition of the Americas Rugby Championship could be settled on Friday when competition leaders, Argentina XV, who have picked up a maximum 15 points from the first three rounds, travel north to Langford to take on Canada.
A fourth consecutive bonus-point win would give the Argentina XV an unassailable lead at the top of the table, even if the USA also win by scoring four tries or more in their home fixture with Uruguay. The Eagles could still reach the same number of competition points if such a scenario unfolds but, in the event of a tie, the champions are decided by the head-to-head record, and Argentina XV enjoyed an emphatic 45-14 victory over the Eagles in round two.
At the bottom of the table, Brazil face a Chile team that has not won in the Americas Rugby Championship since their first game in February 2016.
Canada v Argentina XV
A sell-out home crowd at Westhills Stadium will be hoping to see a first Canadian victory against the Argentina XV, as all three previous meetings have gone the way of the Los Pumas hopefuls.
For this game, Canada coach Kingsley Jones has made three changes to the team that beat Chile 56-0. Hooker Benoit Piffero returns to the starting line-up for his 22nd cap, together with second-row Conor Keys and veteran Gordon McRorie, whose kicking game could prove crucial.
Reflecting on their first win of the campaign, Jones was much happier with the performance.
"By and large it was a pleasing night," he said. "Things that we have been practising came to fruition and to conceded no tries and no points was a further bonus. That's two games on the trot now where we haven't conceded a try. We feel confident but we know we face a big challenge in Argentina XV."
Argentina XV travelled straight to Canada after beating Uruguay 35-10 in round three, knowing that a bonus-point win will give them a title they won in 2016.
With so much on the line, Argentina XV head coach Ignacio Fernández Lobbe has again selected a strong team.
“We’ve had three good weeks in the tournament and probably the only difference to our normal preparation is the temperature,” said the former test second-row, who is anticipating temperatures of between four to five degrees Celsius.
Compared to their last visit, when the match only went ahead after tonnes of snow was cleared away from the playing surface, it will feel positively balmy.
“We very much look forward to playing a very tough Canadian team.," Lobbe said.
Argentina XV captain Lautaro Bavaro, who has only missed one game across the four years of the competition, is also expecting a tough encounter.
“Against Canada we expect a very hard game, knowing that they will also want to win. I think they are getting better and were very efficient against Chile, which is a clear message that it won’t be an easy game," he said.
Brazil v Chile
A third consecutive Americas Rugby Championship win over Chile, by a margin of more than 15 points, could propel Brazil to their highest-ever ranking of 24th if other results also go their way.
However, Os Tupis will have to make do without two of the mainstays of their team. Loose-head prop Lucas Abud, a key figure in the formidable Brazilian scrum, is suspended, while the incisive back play of captain Felipe Sancery will be missed due to shoulder surgery.
Chile have not beaten Brazil since they defeated them 25-22 in the Americas Rugby Championship curtain-raiser in 2016, and few people expected them to still be searching for their next win after all this time.
Pre-match predictions suggest they may be waiting at least one week longer to break their duck, as they play a Brazil side buoyed by an 18-10 win over Canada and a near-miss against the US Eagles.
Head coach Rodolfo Ambrosio refuses to take Los Condores lightly, though.
“We respect every opponent and we only focus on one game at a time,” he explained. “Regardless of where Chile is, they are always a very tough opponent.”
USA v Uruguay
Like the USA, Uruguay have also qualified for Rugby World Cup 2019 making Saturday’s match-up an important part of both side's preparations for the game's showpiece tournament in Japan.
The Eagles are second in the table with Uruguay third, both having suffered losses to Argentina XV.
The home side survived a scare from Brazil in round three before winning 33-28 to stay in the hunt for the title, and head coach Gary Gold is hoping for an improved performance, citing ill-discipline as one of the weaknesses that need addressing.
“We gave away a number of penalties which put us in a really compromising position against Brazil last week,” said Gold. “Especially in the second half when the match almost got away from us.
“Our performance in these next two games is absolutely crucial, not only from a competitive point of view but also from a preparation point of view as consistency in execution is a key focus in a World Cup year. We’re in the home stretch now and look forward to closing out the ARC with our vibrant home fans in Seattle.”
The Eagles conclude their ARC campaign with a derby match against North American neighbours Canada, on 8 March.
Gold has made five changes to his team for the Eagles' 18th meeting with Uruguay, 14 of which have been won by USA and two by Uruguay with one draw. Joe Taufete’e is one of the returnees and the hooker will hope to get the opportunity to pass Keith Wood's long-held record for most tries, currently standing at 15, by a front-row.
The Eagles sealed their second consecutive title with an emphatic 61-19 win against Los Teros in Montevideo last year, but previous encounters have been close. The Eagles won 29-23 in 2017 while Uruguay took the honours, 29-25, in the inaugural tournament.
It is a big weekend for American rugby with four USA Rugby senior and developmental teams competing on home soil. In addition to the Americas Rugby Championship fixture, the Men's Eagles Sevens will defend their title at the HSBC USA Sevens in Las Vegas and the men's and women's Falcons will compete in the largest amateur rugby tournament in North America at the Las Vegas Invitational.
Photo: Rugby Canada
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