The Americas 2 place at Rugby World Cup 2019 will be determined on Saturday when Uruguay and Canada meet in the decisive qualifier second leg in Montevideo (17:00 local/20:00 GMT).
Uruguay hold a nine-point advantage heading into the match, having stormed back from a 10-point first-half deficit to triumph in Vancouver with an impressive set-piece and counter-attacking performance.
The winner on aggregate will join Australia, Wales, Georgia and Fiji to complete Pool D at Japan 2019. Uruguay also hold the upper hand in the World Rugby Rankings and recent results between the two teams with Los Teros ranked 18 and Canada 21. Uruguay have won the last two encounters, but with Canada in determined mood, this is a must-watch match.
When Uruguay run out at the Estadio Charrúa on Saturday, the weight of expectation on their shoulders will be huge.
Having beaten Canada 38-29 in the first leg of the Rugby World Cup 2019 qualifying series to decide who fills the Americas 2 berth, the Japan 2019 dream is within their grasp.
The winner on aggregate will take their place in Pool D in Japan 2019 with Australia, Wales, Georgia and Fiji. The loser will enter the four-team global repechage which will determine the 20th and final qualifier in November.
After a long flight home, they have all recovered and are fit and hungry. At their camp, in the outskirts of Montevideo, Los Teros have banned any celebratory talk.
Canada, based a stone-throw away from River Plate, are expecting a much better performance than they produced in Vancouver last weekend and, if things go their way, they could well overturn the nine-point difference to win the series.
Three years in the making
“They scored 17 points in 10 minutes in Vancouver so there is no way we can even think of underestimating them,” says number eight Alejandro Nieto, who is hoping to be heading to his second Rugby World Cup next year.
“It is great to be home knowing friends and family will be at the game. We have been preparing for this moment for three years and we want to make sure it all comes to fruition.”
Uruguay will have a rare luxury in test rugby on Saturday with coach Esteban Meneses having named an unchanged line-up.
Led by flanker Juan Manuel Gaminara, the presence of former captain Rodrigo Capo Ortega may again prove crucial for Los Teros.
“He has been great over the last two weeks,” admitted Nieto, who grew watching the second-row play in his former position of number eight. “His friendly advice and hunger to help us has been an inspiration. The way he respects ‘Garrafa’ (Gaminara) shows what he is made of.”
Room for improvement
Canada, by contrast, have not had the same luxury with eight injured players making their selection much harder. Notable absentees from the first leg are fly-half Connor Braid (high-ankle sprain) and winger Jeff Hassler (fractured cheekbone).
Shane O’Leary and Brock Staller come into the team, the latter slotting in at full-back with Taylor Paris shifting to his normal position on the wing. Staller’s place on the bench is taken by Kainoa Lloyd.
“The general feeling is we didn’t give our best performance in Vancouver and there is room for improvement in every aspect of our game,” said Canada coach Kingsley Jones. “The players are focused but also frustrated with the way they played and the challenge will be to turn that frustration into positivity on Saturday.
“That was our first game in some time so we struggled at times. Our set piece was OK but we were disappointed with our defence.”
The game could be won or lost on mental strength. Early points for the Canadians could frustrate Los Teros and give them a morale boost. Likewise, if Uruguay start strong and extend their points difference, it could be a long afternoon under the sun for the visiting Canucks.
A place at RWC 2019 is not the only thing at stake as Canada will return to the top 20 in the World Rugby Rankings, at the expense of Spain, with any margin of victory in Montevideo. Uruguay cannot improve their position of 17th even with an emphatic victory, but they will fall one to 18th if they lose on home soil by more than 15 points.