Uruguay and Chile will renew their seven decade old rugby rivalry on Sunday at the Charrúa Stadium in a key game on the road they hope will lead them to France 2023.
Los Cóndores are still to qualify for a Rugby World Cup and are now more determined to do so than ever, having embraced High Performance initiatives over the last couple of years that have seen them grow with every game.
Los Teros meanwhile, almost a decade into a high performance plan, are perhaps the team to beat, but the Chileans have an X factor in the shape of Pablo Lemoine, the former Uruguayan captain and coach who lead the early years of that HP programme, that would take them to England in 2015 and Japan in 2019.
In other words, Chile have never been better prepared.
“It will be a very strategic game – it will go to the team that best handles pressure, protects the ball, and controls its discipline,” says Chilean captain Martín Sigren.
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“Games such as this one are decided 100% on strategy and pressure control,” adds the loose forward.
Chile beat Brazil 23-13 last weekend to keep their hopes of progressing to Rugby World Cup 2023 alive, as long as Uruguay beat Os Tupis in the final weekend of this three-team tournament.
Los Cóndores want more however; they want to beat Uruguay and ensure they book their ticket for the series against the best team of USA and Canada for a place in Pool A in France, with the hosts, the All Blacks, Italy and Africa 1 qualifier.
“This is a bigger challenge. Uruguay is our favourite opponent, the team for us to beat historically,” says Sigren.
The last time they played, in this same ground, was during the turmoil of 2020, when a Chile XV won 22-21. Captain Sigren doesn’t take it as a point of reference.
“I don’t think it really counts. Sunday’s will be completely different. Uruguay has been able to bring back its overseas players so we consider it a totally different game."
Uruguay have a clear numerical advantage over Chile – 40 wins, eleven losses and one draw since they first played in September 1951. Their domination is such that Chile have only managed two wins in the last ten games, the last coming in May 2015 in Santiago, 30-15. Uruguay have won the last six games – four of them at the Charrúa Stadium.
In their only preparation game, Uruguay beat an Argentina XV 46-26. Los Teros’ top scorer Felipe Berchesi was happy with the win.
“It was an important game; we hadn’t been together as a team in two years. A nice test, a nice challenge.
“We were ready, playing good rugby, strong in the breakdown. It was all a good omen for our qualification.”
Sunday’s game is key for the aspirations of a team that shocked the world with their win against Fiji at the Kamaishi Memorial Ground during RWC 2019.
“Chile will be a tough opponent as there are big things to play for; it will be a tense game,” says Berchesi, who plays for US Dax in France. “We saw their win against Brazil and they are very physical, can play the kicking game – we are expecting that from them.
“The one-on-one will be crucial. But I am confident in the team we have; we know we can be up to the task.”
Getting closer to France is what both teams are aiming for. Chile's appointment of Pablo Lemoine as head coach is a complication for Uruguay, to say the least. An experienced prop with 48 tests for Uruguay, he played in two RWCs and then coached Los Teros on the journey that took them to England in 2015. Since 2018, he has led the High Performance process in Chile.
“I don’t think that playing against a team coached by Pablo, who knows us very well, will be influential,” says Berchesi of his first international coach. “His was a process a few years ago and the team has evolved a lot. We are a different stage now and we don’t see it as an issue. As an Uruguayan he certainly knows the soul of the team, and it is what he has tried to construct in Chile. We are expecting that. We have evolved hugely in these years.”
Happy to be back in the country after almost two years, Berchesi likes what he’s found. “What happened with rugby in South America thanks to the Superliga Americana de Rugby is very good.
“I’ve found a very mature team, with young players that despite their age are very mature and are pushing for the most competitive edge we’ve had in quite some time. In that sense, it is very, very important."
Photo: Sudamérica Rugby / Gaspafotos