It keeps getting tougher for Canada. After the narrow defeat to Samoa they now face defending champions Argentina in round 3 of the Pacific Challenge. On paper it’s a rematch of the final game of the Americas Rugby Championship in November, but looks can be deceiving. Only a handful of players from each side that took part that day have returned, and the level of competition is undoubtedly a step up. This is as close to a test match as it gets, exactly what these teams wanted heading into the tournament, and a number of players might well have their World Cup aspirations on the line.
Since then the Jaguars moniker has been tossed out by Argentina, replaced by the Pampas brand which has up until now been used exclusively for the Vodacom Cup. Along with it come the uniquely coloured jerseys, but the style of rugby remains the same. Fast, expansive, and deadly accurate at the set pieces. The latter bit will need attention from Canada, where defending the maul at the lineout has proved problematic. The scrum, however, has been a source of strength, and an area where Canada will hope to find parity.
Canada have been dealt a blow in the loss of Hubert Buydens, the captain suspended after being shown a red card late in the game against Samoa. There is no official word yet whether he will be eligible to return for the next game but for now tireless flanker John Moonlight will step up to lead in his absence. (*EDIT: Ciaran Hearn has been named match-day captain, Moonlight will lead the pack). While Buydens will undoubtedly be missed, it does present a glorious opportunity for fringe candidates Tom Dolezel and Jake Ilnicki to prove their value.
Neither have cemented their place for September, and in fact the two could well be in direct competition for one spot. At the moment the edge probably goes to Dolezel, the bigger and more experienced of the two, and whose ability to play both sides of the scrum is of value. Ilnicki has yet to take part in the competition, a late scratch for both games, but must now stand up against his most formidable opponent to date. It is the type of experience that will prove an invaluable learning experience, regardless of the immediate outcome.
The rest of the pack is identical to the one that opened against Samoa, but there is some shuffling among the backs. Ciaran Hearn moves into the midfield from fullback, where he forms a meaty partnership with Nick Blevins, the latter making his first appearance in Fiji. Conor Trainor is bumped out to the wing, and Harry Jones is elected to fill in at fullback after stuttering in the no10 shirt against Samoa. Phil Mackenzie starts his third match in 9 days on the left wing, and first choice halfbacks Gordon McRorie and Liam Underwood will look to control field position.
They will be met with intimidating opposition. The Pampas have rolled out their big guns, with 8 players from their Rugby Championship squad in the starting XV including star winger Manuel Montero and former Leicester Tigers flanker Pablo Matera. This group of forwards would not look out of place in a full international, and the back row in particular is as good a young trio as you’ll find in world rugby. Matera has fully recovered from a serious shoulder injury and is a disturbingly physical competitor.
The backs are perhaps less imposing on paper, but should not be underestimated. Third choice scrumhalf Felipe Ezcurra was arguably the standout player of the ARC, a testament to Argentina’s strength in depth, and stand-in captain Santiago González Iglesias has matured into a very competent performer at test level. Jerónimo de la Fuente and Matías Moroni are an attack-minded midfield, with Moroni long considered one of his country’s most gifted prospects. Both are expected to feature heavily in next year’s maiden Super Rugby voyage.
Though the Pampas sluggishly navigated their way through Fiji in round 1, the performance against Tonga suggests they are over the jet lag and back up to full strength. Like Canada, many of the first choice players were rested in round 2, so neither side can complain too much about match fatigue. The contest in the scrum will be important, but it’s the tempo and accuracy at the breakdown that is most worrisome about the Pampas attack. They do not fling the ball about willy-nilly, instead they look to create space through attritional phase play.
Make no mistake, this is a significant step up from Samoa. A Canadian win would be a considerable upset. It’s not out of the question – far from it – but Canada will have to limit their mistakes and hold on to the ball as much as possible. If they gift possession to the Pampas, they will very quickly regret it. Playing defense all game in that humidity is just not possible. Canada must play with urgency and take the game to Argentina.
Based on what both sides have shown thus far, it looks a tall order with such little time between matches. Look for Argentina to exert their dominance early and come away winners against a tough but outmatched Canadian side by around 15 points. Considering the 30 point difference in Victoria a few months ago, that seems a reasonable expectation and would still represent a step in the right direction for Canadian rugby.
CANADA ‘A’ vs ARGENTINA PAMPAS XV
Wednesday, March 18, 15:00 FJT, Suva
*March 17, 23:00 EST Canadian time
STREAM LINK: https://my.tfl.com.fj/module/stream/wrpc.php