The final round of the Americas Rugby Championship 2019 is upon us and newly-crowned champions Argentina XV are one win away from emulating last year's winners USA in completing a Grand Slam.
Argentina XV have a perfect record of 20 points from 20 following bonus-point wins in the first four rounds and hold an unassailable seven-point lead over fellow South Americans Uruguay as they prepare to take on Chile in Santiago.
The two other matches both count towards the World Rugby Rankings and USA will be desperate not to lose any further ground when they take on North American rivals Canada in Seattle. The Eagles have slipped from 12th to 15th since the Americas Rugby Championship began, and a further fall is possible should they slip up against their fellow Rugby World Cup 2019 qualifiers.
As their game is on Friday, victory would put pressure on Uruguay as Los Teros would then have to beat Brazil the following day to be assured of second place.
USA v Canada
The US Eagles have not lost to Canada since August 2013 and will not want that nine-match unbeaten run to come to an end having already lost on home soil once in this Americas Rugby Championship.
Defeat to the lower-ranked Uruguay in Seattle last week came as a disappointment to head coach Gary Gold, who has made 11 changes to his starting XV for this cross-border derby.
“Obviously we are hugely disappointed with the result last weekend, especially knowing how important it is for us to execute in a Rugby World Cup year. But, by no means does one loss, or even two losses (they were also beaten by Argentina XV in round two) take away from our ability to come back and have another good string of performances in this last ARC game and as the year continues,” he said.
Champions in 2017 and 2018, having been runners-up in 2016, the Eagles need to win and hope that Uruguay are beaten by Brazil to avoid their lowest finish in the competition's four-year history.
While fourth place is the best Canada can hope for, a precious win over the Eagles would be a massive confidence booster for Kingsley Jones' side ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
Canada welcome back experienced scrum-half Phil Mack as one of two changes from last week's loss to Argentina XV in Langford. The RWC 2015 veteran will be on familiar territory for his first test of the year as he plays his club rugby in Seattle for the Seawolves in the Major League Rugby.
Looking ahead to the match, Jones said: “There’s a passionate rivalry between these two nations and the USA have had the upper hand lately, so we need to be prepared and maximise the opportunity. A win on Friday would be huge for momentum as we push to the Rugby World Cup.”
The rankings will only benefit Canada as an Eagles win will not come with any rating points. A win for the visitors could push them up to 18th – depending on other results – with the Eagles falling to 17th.
Chile v Argentina XV
While the presence of the Americas Rugby Championship trophy on the touchline at the Estadio Santiago Bueras in Santiago is a reminder that the main prize is won, Argentina XV know that the job in hand is not yet complete.
With Friday’s raucous celebrations now in the past, the newly-crowned champions have set the bar high and, after a week of preparation in Santiago, will aim to finish with another bonus-point win to give them a maximum 25 points for the five rounds.
In their previous three Americas Rugby Championship games against Los Cóndores, Argentina XV's superiority has been evident, with an average winning margin of 39 points, scoring 22 tries and only conceding three.
“We deserve to finish the tournament playing good rugby after the huge effort the players put in since 7 January when we first got together,” said Argentina XV coach Ignacio Fernández Lobbe.
Life at this level is proving tough for Chile who, once again, will finish last.
Coach Pablo Lemoine is, however, putting measures in place to ensure this isn't an annual occurrence in the future.
“I have identified 30 players and staff; the high-performance plan is allowing us to work towards the future regardless of recent outcomes,” said Lemoine. “In that sense, the ARC has been positive for us.”
Two high-performance academies are already in place with a further two set to open.
Uruguay v Brazil
The return of Felipe Berchesi to the Uruguayan ranks comes as a timely boost as Los Teros come up against a Brazilian team that is growing in confidence, ability and game awareness.
Given they defeated the US Eagles last weekend, a win without a bonus point would be enough to see them secure their best-ever finish in the Americas Rugby Championship of second place.
Meanwhile, an historic third-place finish is on the line for the Brazilians in Montevideo – depending on the result of Friday's match in Seattle, while they could also reach their highest ever ranking. Currently 25th, a draw would move them up one position to a new high of 24th or, even better, up two, if other results go their way.
Brazil's two wins against Uruguay were more than 50 years ago, so a win in Montevideo would add another chapter to Os Tupis' success story.
“It is probably the biggest game in our recent history,” said Josh Reeves, the Brazil fly-half who, with 49 points, is the tournament’s leading point-scorer.
“A win would mean many things that we haven't yet achieved, highest ranking, three wins in the ARC and a (rare) win on Uruguayan soil. We are pretty motivated but we know that Uruguay is a tough side and are playing well so we will have to be at our best to beat them.”
Lining up opposite him is Berchesi, who makes his first appearance of the year in Uruguayan colours.
“The team is in a good place, we have Felipe back and finishing in a better place than 2018 is one of the goals we set when the season started,” said Uruguay coach Esteban Meneses. “We are facing a strong opponent on Saturday but we have high hopes and we’ve prepared the team to finish off in a good way.”
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