Argentina Jaguars have retained their Americas Rugby Championship title with a match to spare after beating the USA Select XV 45-12 in Córdoba in central Argentina on Sunday.
With one round remaining, only Canada Selects – the 32-16 conquerors of Tonga A – can match the 10 points accrued by the Jaguars. However, as the Jaguars beat the Canadians on day one, they would still be crowned champions even if that happens.
The four teams were more efficient than in their opening encounters and captivated the crowd of more than 3,000, many of them young children who had played in a mini rugby event at the same Chateau Carreras ground in the rugby hotbed of Córdoba.
Canada Selects v Tonga A
The first match of the day saw Canada Selects take on Tonga A and despite clear skies and dry conditions, the first half was somewhat error-ridden with 16 scrums awarded for either forward passes or knock-ons from both teams.
Tonga A drew first blood in the second minute when full back Mesui Lemoto kicked a 40-metre penalty. He missed a second, more angled kick in the only two opportunities his side had in attack.
Canada Selects involved wing Nick Blevins a lot in the opening 20 minutes but could not penetrate the Tongan defence efficiently set around rucks and mauls, ensuring options out wide were cancelled.
Having missed a sitter in the 10th minute, Connor Braid kicked his second penalty to draw level in the 20th minute. The two defences cancelled each other out and the only try of the half came when Tonga were reduced to 14 men with captain Charles Mateo yellow-carded for a dangerous tackle.
The Canadians waited until the last second of that sin-bin to score from a rolling maul, hooker Mike Pletch touching down to send his side in with an 8-3 lead after Braid missed the conversion.
Whatever was said in the changing rooms had the desired effect as the teams seemed more cohesive after the break with four tries in the opening 20 minutes proof of this.
Canada Selects scored the first, number 8 Mark McSween benefiting from the decision to turn down a penalty when he was at the end of a passing movement. Captain Ryan Smith added a second minutes later, touching down in the left corner with Braid adding a magnificent conversion.
Wing Ryan Tomlinson was held up when a third Canada Selects try seemed in the offing, but he only had to wait until the next play to score after a set move from a scrum involving Braid and Smith.
At 27-6, it seemed as if the Selects would keep racking in points. Tonga A, though, had other ideas. Replacement half back Soane Havea gave them more intent and soon they took control of the game.
A penalty was run and Lemoto was at the end of the passing movement to score in the right corner. Again, a superb kick – this time by replacement Fangatapu Apikotoa – added the extras.
The Tongans kicked a third penalty through Apikotoa, but with two minutes remaining their opponents secured possession and Braid beautifully kicked for position. Tonga A were forced into touch and from the resulting lineout, replacement prop Hubert Buydens crashed over.
“In the first half we made too many mistakes and as a result we couldn't build momentum,” said Kieran Crowley, the Selects and Canadian national coach.
"That was the focus of our half-time talk. In the second half we were able to build pressure and that netted us some good results. Our defence also worked very well after a lot of work put in after our first round loss.”
Tonga A captain Mateo added: “We started playing well but failed to transform that into points. Canada later took control and we failed to play to our plan.”
Argentina Jaguars v USA Select XV
The second match began with a higher tempo and intent, the USA Select XV controlling the ball for most of the opening 20 minutes despite failing to transform that control into points as a penalty and a drop goal went astray.
The lack of opportunities for the Argentina Jaguars was exemplified by fly half Nicolás Sánchez kicking two long-range penalties, the first going between the posts.
On the 20-minute mark, the Jaguars managed to finally break through a staunch defence, with flanker Leonardo Senatore taking an inside pass from full back Román Miralles. Five minutes later, with the Jaguars slick in attack, Miralles added a second try.
The pressure from the home side was such that with the Americans trying to attack from their own half, centre Juan Pablo Estelles intercepted to score under the posts. Sánchez converted the three tries and added two more penalties for a comfortable 30-0 lead at half time.
It took the Argentina Jaguars only two minutes to again find a way through the Selects’ defence with Miralles scoring his second try of the match in the left corner.
Just when it seemed as if the Jaguars would run away with the match and pile on the points, the Americans began to be more composed and efficient and in the final 35 minutes they outscored their opponents.
Having never given up, the Select XV were soon in an attacking position. Second row Samu Manoa dropped the ball as he was about to score, but fortunately for him referee Bryan Arciero went back to a previous penalty position. Hooker Chris Biller tapped and drove through a wall of defenders for his side’s first try.
The always-dangerous Jaguars’ backs benefited from the space created when centre Gareth Jones was sin-binned. Replacement full back Joaquín Tuculet scored in the first move. USA Selects were for a short period down to 13 – Manoa was also yellow carded – but their defence held.
It took the Jaguars almost 20 minutes to score again – in the meantime, the Selects had a couple of opportunities denied by the asphyxiating home defence. Eventually, centre Gabriel Azcárate took a pass from wing Agustín Gosio to touch down.
The end of the game saw the Americans in deep attack. Nic Johnson’s team showed grit and determination were rewarded when from a tapped penalty Manoa scored. Valenese Malifa kicked the conversion with the final act of the game.
“We knew it was always going to be a very difficult game, but we are happy that we managed to keep our heads cool and had a very good second half,” said USA Select XV and national team coach Eddie O’Sullivan.
“The lessons we take from this game are many and it is certainly a great tournament for us in that sense.”
Argentina Jaguars captain Miguel de Achával added that their goal “was always to win the championship, but in doing so we wanted to ensure that we played to our structures and game plans. We did this despite facing a strong team that never laid down. We are happy with the win.”
The final round of matches on Friday will see Canada Selects face the USA Select XV in a battle for North American pride and runners-up at 17:45 local time, before the Jaguars tackle Tonga A at 19:45.