USA will be hoping to give Men’s Eagles captain Nate Brakeley a send-off to remember in Villajoyosa this weekend as they bid to close out their season by winning La Vila International Rugby Cup.
Brakeley is set to lead USA out for only the second time in his career at El Pantano Stadium on the occasion of his 34th and final test, the second-row having announced his decision to retire after Saturday’s title decider against Spain.
The 34-year-old from Massachusetts made his debut as a flanker in the inaugural Americas Rugby Championship in 2016.
“I love rugby and I love my country. To wear the jersey even once is unforgettable, to wear it for eight years has been the greatest honour I can imagine,” he said.
“The nature of sport is that your time is finite, so I couldn’t be more pleased to go out playing for a championship alongside some of the same boys I started this journey with.”
A long time between fixtures
None of the current squad were anywhere near being around the test arena when the teams last met, it is that long ago.
Two whole decades have passed since USA won 58-13 in Fort Lauderdale to qualify for Rugby World Cup 2003 at Los Leones’ expense.
Even veteran Cam Dolan, who comes back into the side to play his 67th test, was only 13 years old back then.
USA booked their place in the final with a 48-3 win over Brazil, yet interim head coach Scott Lawrence wants to see further improvement from his team in their final test of the year.
“This is an intriguing match-up of different styles. It’s what makes our sport so exciting to watch,” said Lawrence, who stepped into the breach when Gary Gold left his position as head coach back in December.
“We’re focused at doing the things we’re good at but doing them better this game. That has been our focus since July.”
USA memorably kicked off this year’s campaign by winning away to Romania before suffering back-to-back defeats at the hands of Georgia and Portugal.
Spain, meanwhile, finished fourth in the Rugby Europe Championship 2023, and went into La Vila International Rugby Cup having only played one match since then – a 62-3 defeat at home to Argentina in August.
But they showed no signs of rustiness in racing into a 35-6 half-time lead in last week’s semi-final against Canada, before easing off and eventually winning 42-20.
As Brakeley prepares to call time on his test career, Spain have opted to hand the captain’s armband to outside-centre Federico Casteglioni, with Mario Pichardie named as vice-captain.
Two of the three changes to Los Leones’ starting XV come in the front row with Santiago Ovejero and Joaquín Domínguez named at hooker and tight-head respectively, to join loose-head Thierry Futeu, while Pichardie has a new second-row partner in Alejandro Suárez.
USA have made three changes to their starting pack, including new props in Jake Turnbull and David Ainu’u.
Dolan comes back into the starting XV in the second-row, meaning a switch to blindside for Sam Golla.
Rankings point to close encounters
With only one place and just over a point-and-a-half separating the sides in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings powered by Capgemini, the final promises to be a closely-fought affair – unlike the three previous encounters which were all won by the Men’s Eagles by a margin of 40 points plus.
A win for Spain will see them replace the USA in 18th place, while the Men’s Eagles could overtake Uruguay if they win by more than 15 points..
The match which precedes it, the third-place play-off between Canada and Brazil, would appear to be similarly tight.
Canada start the play-off as the higher-ranked of the two teams in 23rd but that could all change.
Brazil won 18-10 the last time the sides met in 2019 and if Os Tupis can win again, and also increase the margin of victory to more than 15 points, they will move up to 24th with Canada dropping to an all-time low of 26th.
However, Canada will move up to 21st, above Namibia and Chile, if they can break a four-game losing run and come away with a prized victory.
Captain Lucas Rumball, who played his 50th test against Spain, wants to see the same grit and determination his side showed in the second half of that match from the very first whistle against Brazil.
“We had a big goal-line stand right at the start of the second half, an unwillingness to give up. We go a man down, we stick it out. We do our job, we work hard and we get somewhat back into the game. Now if we can do that from square one, it’s a completely different story,” he said.
Both teams have made a raft of changes to their starting XVs from last weekend’s defeats.
Loose-head Caique Segura and hooker Leonardo Souza join tight-head Wilton Rebolo in the new-look Brazil front row.
Matteo Dell’Acqua swaps the number five jersey for number four and Gabriel Oliviera comes into the pack to partner him in the second row.
The only other change upfront comes at openside with the inclusion of Mattheus Claudio alongside Cleber Dias at blindside and Andre Arruda at number eight.
In the backs, Douglas Rauth is promoted from the bench to partner captain and fly-half Lucas Spago, while veteran centre Robert Tenório joins Lorenzo Massari in a new midfield combination.
Canada’s run-on team shows right changes of personnel and three positional switches as they attempt to stop their slide down the rankings.
Cole Keith, a try-scorer in last week’s defeat to Spain, will move from one side of the scrum to the other and line up at loose-head prop following an injury to Djustice Sears-Duru, while Kyle Baillie moves from blindside to the second row, and Ben LeSage is picked at inside-centre having played 13 against Spain.
Keith’s change of position sees Conor Young handed a start at tight-head, while Baillie joins Izzak Kelly in the engine room.
Mason Flesch replaces Baillie in the number six jersey in an otherwise unchanged back row. Rumball packs down at openside and Matthew Oworu completes the back-row trinity.
Jason Higgins and Robbie Povey keep their half-back spots, while Peter Nelson remains at full-back.
Hong Kong and Germany in re-match
Away from La Vila International Rugby Cup, Hong Kong China play Germany for the second time in a week knowing that a repeat of Tuesday’s 29-16 win will see them climb the rankings if Canada lose.
Germany will re-enter the top 30 if they prevail, moving above Zimbabwe and Korea, and will gain a further place and move up to 29th if the victory is by more than 15 points.
A heavy defeat of that nature combined with a win for Brazil will see Hong Kong China slip two places to 26th.
The only other match to count towards the rankings this weekend comes in the Rugby Europe Trophy 2023-24.
Any form of win for Croatia over Sweden will see them replace their opponents in 36th, with the Scandinavians dropping three places in defeat irrespective of the margin.
Sweden need to win by more than 15 points to gain one place and move up to 35th.