The first round of the Americas Rugby Championship resumes on Saturday with two matches that will almost certainly have a bearing on final positions, even this early in the premier continental tournament.
Uruguay beat Canada 38-29 to kick-off the 2018 edition last Saturday and while they lead the standings, they are not in Americas Rugby Championship action this weekend as they face each other again in Montevideo to decide who will qualify for Rugby World Cup 2019 as Americas 2.
It is up to Chile and Brazil to therefore kick-off proceedings on Saturday at La Pintana Stadium in Santiago, before defending champions USA host 2016 winners Argentina XV in Carson City, California.
Brazil and Chile head into their opening round encounter with high hopes of proving themselves after two seasons in the Championship. On the one hand, the hosts need to start winning more often, having beaten Brazil in the first round of the inaugural tournament two years ago and not having been able to secure another win since.
The team, under new coach Mark Cross, failed to gather a single point last year, scoring only four tries and 55 points in five games, conceding 25 tries amid 200 points. In fact, their only other tournament point was for a seven-point loss to Uruguay in round three in 2016.
Flanker Alfonso Escobar will make his test debut after leading Chile to fifth place at the World Rugby U20 Trophy last November. He follows in the footsteps of his father Alfonso, a former Águilas captain. Two other members of that U20 side could also make their debuts off the bench in second-row Nicolas Garafulic and centre Lucas Avelli.
In terms of the World Rugby Rankings, any form of victory for Brazil would mean much more than a confidence boost as it would lift them above Chile and to their highest ever position since the rankings were introduced in October 2003. Brazil currently sit one place shy of that high in 28th, but will climb three or four places depending on the margin of victory.
Chile, currently four places higher than Brazil, will swap places with their visitors if they lose by more than 15 points – something that has never happened before.
“We need to focus on our game plan,” is Brazil coach Rodolfo Ambrosio’s view on the issue. “We’ve had a good preparation and we are here to play our best rugby. If that happens, the scoreline will look after itself.”
USA will also have home advantage for what has proven to be the tightest game of the Americas Rugby Championship’s fledgling history. The two games the Eagles have played against the Argentina XV have finished in draws, yet last year’s stalemate saw the Eagles crowned champions on points differential.
“We have a huge respect for Argentina XV and expect a really fast, tough encounter against them. They are an exciting attacking team so we need to be really prepared for what they are going to throw at us,” said new Eagles coach Gary Gold.
“We also need to ensure we get the stuff we need to focus on done to the best of our ability. Having only been together for the week, we’ve worked really hard to put plans into place. The boys have bought in really well and we hope we are going to get some great returns.”
The Eagles had a positive 2017 which included the Americas Rugby Championship title and qualifying for Rugby World Cup 2019 as Americas 1, but they will be facing a team still hurting from last year’s draw.
After a long season in 2017, the Argentina XV have worked very hard in the intense summer heat of Buenos Aires and will be captained again by flanker Lautaro Bavaro, who is yet to miss a Championship match.
“Saturday’s game will be extremely tough. It is the first game of the season for both teams, even if we had a warm-up match against Jaguares. No one will give anything and we will both want to win so it will be all on from the first minute,” said Bavaro.