HAMILTON, ON — The Canadian port city of Hamilton, Ontario will be taken over by Canadian and American Rugby fans this Saturday as the USA Eagles travel to take on Canada in the first leg of the Americas Rugby World Cup Qualifying Series.
Dubbed “one of rugby’s fiercest rivalries” by World Rugby, this rendition of the Great White North Challenge holds added weight and consequence with the top Japan 2019 qualifying spot in the Americas on the line. The Americas 1 qualifying spot will be decided by the aggregate score of the upcoming two-leg aggregate qualifying series.
The rivalry has been Eagle-centric since 2013 as the United States has won the last five encounters between the two sides. The last time the Eagles faced Les Rouges came during the 2017 Americas Rugby Championship (ARC) with the United States cruising to an exciting 51-34 victory in Burnaby, BC en route to their first ARC title. Canada’s ARC was forgettable to say the least, a lowly fifth-place finish with losses to Uruguay and Brazil sealing one of Canada’s worst seasons of late.
Come Saturday the United States will field a side featuring over 200 caps and plenty of recent experience against the northern neighbors. Eagles head coach John Mitchell has gone with a more familiar starting XV for the trip up north, citing individual performance during the summer series and past experience against the Canadians as factors for selection.
For starters, Mitchell has given Paddy Ryan the start at prop in replacement of the injured Chris Boumann. He’ll line up alongside James Hildebrand and Tony Purpura in the otherwise unchanged front row. Ben Landry starts for the second consecutive week in the second row but will team up alongside Nick Civetta instead of Nate Brakeley.
Civetta started against the Irish but was sat against Georgia in preparation or Saturday’s match. As for the loose forwards, USA cap record-holder Todd Clever returns to his spot on the flank opposite John Quill, while Cam Dolan moves back a position to take on the #8 role. The forwards benefited from taking on the forward-heavy Georgians last week and need to use the lessons learned from that match and their scrum-time advantage early and often.
As for the backs, Saturday’s lineup looks much closer to the one that was fielded against the Irish than the one against the Georgians.
Nate Augspurger and AJ MacGinty return to scrum-half and fly-half, respectively, to take over the reins of attack and offensive capability. Their partnership was not effective against the Irish, so their performance needs to be above and beyond. South African born Marcel Brache returns to inside-center after starting against the Irish and an off-the-bench performance against Georgia last week. Brache will run alongside outside-center Bryce Campbell who himself earns a second consecutive start. Both Campbell and Brache have plenty to prove following optimistic performances last week, but both really need to show their ability to break the gain line and provide support the breakdown in order to move their performance effectiveness and efficiency to the next level.
The Eagles back three has been relatively quiet this summer but Matai Leuta, Mike Te’o and Ben Cima will be hoping to relive past successes against the Canadians come game time. Leuta, a convert from the Eagles 7s program, beat Canada several times in 7s and will field against the Canadians for the first time in 15s. Te’o, who steps in to replace an ill Ryan Matyas on the wing, had a stormer against Canada during the ARC, recording a hat trick in a brilliant display from fullback. Ben Cima nailed a 52 m kick to beat the Canadian U20s in a one-off World Rugby Junior Trophy qualifier two years ago, so he’ll be eager to try his hand against the Canucks at the senior level.
Despite the experience lineup from the Americans, the match will certainly not be without challenge. The Canadians have taken 15 of the 19 Rugby World Cup qualification matches against the Eagles, proving their ability to perform come crunch time. After such a poor showing at the ARC, Canada will undoubtedly be anticipating Saturday’s match as an opportunity to write their season’s wrongs and turn lemons to lemonade. The ARC is still a very young tournament, so Canada’s fifth-place finish will not phase them considering the Rugby World Cup berth on the line.
Canadian head coach Mark Anscombe brings together a side with a fair amount of experience including Exeter’s Tyler Ardron, Northampton’s Jake Ilnicki, Newcastle’s DTH van der Merwe, and London Irish’s Ciaran Hearn. They are ready to return to the World Cup for the ninth time.
Catch the game on The Rugby Channel in the United States (I believe it is unfortunately behind the pay wall) and on TSN in Canada from 3 Eastern, 12 Pacific.
If the USA is going to play for anything, they should play for the memory of Mike O’Rosky. Mike was a prominent youth rugby coach in San Diego and was a great promoter of the game up to his passing. He was a coach that always pushed for perfection and taught his players how to become strong of body and mind. He left an indelible mark on the people he interacted with. Coach Mike, you will be missed.
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