St John’s, the capital of Newfoundland, is a place that nobody connected with US rugby would have been in a particular rush to get back to.

But like it or not, test rugby returns this Saturday to the most easterly point of Canada after a 15-year absence as the host country take on the US Eagles in the first of two Rugby World Cup 2023 qualifiers between the teams.

St John’s is home to Swilers Rugby Club, the venue where those with long memories will recall the Eagles suffered a record 56-7 defeat to Canada in August 2006, a result which saw the team in red qualify as Americas 2 for Rugby World Cup 2007.

This time the prize at stake for the winner of the Rugby Americas North 1 (RAN 1) two-match series – the return leg is in Glendale a week later – is the chance to compete with Uruguay for the Americas 1 berth alongside New Zealand, France, Italy and the Africa Cup 2022 winner in Pool A at RWC 2023.

Los Teros progressed to this advanced stage of the RWC 2023 Americas qualification process as winners of the Sudamérica Rugby 3 Naciones after narrow victories against Chile and Brazil in July.

Power shift

With the power balance having shifted in the Eagles’ favour in recent years, Canada go into this weekend’s match as underdogs.

But that was not the case in 2006 when Canada’s all-time record points scorer, James Pritchard delivered the performance of his life.

Starting on the wing for only the fourth time in his fledgling international career, the Australian-born back scored 36 points – the most individual points scored by a Canadian in a test match – with a hat-trick of tries included in the yet-to-be-beaten tally.

“It was just one of those games where everything just clicked for us,” he told World Rugby.

“I remember for one of the tries I got, we had just scored and the USA kicked off and it went out on the full. Morgan Williams caught the ball and ran up to halfway and I thought ‘hang on, we’re on here’ because they had turned their backs to walk back to the middle for a scrum. Morgan hit me with a pass from a quick lineout and I scored.”

Daunting destination

While none of the current USA squad or management were around back then, Pritchard says some of the local accents might give the visitors nightmares of their recent 71-10 defeat at the hands of Ireland.

“It is a pretty daunting place to go to, which is one of the reasons why I think they choose to play there,” he said.

“It is the furthest east part of Canada, closer to Ireland and the UK than any other landmass in North America.

“For a visitor or an untrained ear, it is almost like Ireland. Some of the accents you get around in Newfoundland are very Irish-like, and it gets bloody cold up there. They are a tough breed of people.”

Back in 2006, a capacity 5,000 crowd roared Canada to their record victory.

“For us, it was like having an extra man or two on the field. With the support we had behind us the whole week, there was never a doubt we were going to lose that game.”

With a 12-match unbeaten run in the fixture and a World Rugby Men’s Ranking six places higher than Canada, the US Eagles will hope to take a healthy first-leg lead into the rematch on 11 September.

Young talent

Canada go into the game on the back of a 10-match losing run and without experienced campaigners like Tyler Ardron and Evan Olmstead.

But Pritchard, who amassed 607 points in his 11-year test career, hopes Canada can find inspiration from somewhere to turn things around.

“Watching the last few of their games, there are glimpses there,” he said.

“In the games against England and Wales, you could see there are some good young players coming through.

“With MLR starting to progress, a lot of these guys are getting 15s games under their belts, and we’re not having to share players between sevens and 15s which has happened in the past.”

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