World Cup Qualification: USA Eagles' Tough Road To France
World Cup Qualification: USA Eagles' Tough Road To France
The USA's 2023 Rugby World Cup hopes were dealt a brutal blow with two qualification-series defeats, but a tournament in Dubai will offer one last chance.
The USA's 2023 Rugby World Cup hopes were dealt a brutal blow with two qualification-series defeats, but a four-team repechage tournament in Dubai to determine the final participant at next year's showpiece in France will serve as the last opportunity for the Eagles to secure a ticket to the game's greatest tournament.
The USA Eagles historically have been a powerhouse among the Americas when it comes to World Cup qualification. They've participated in eight of the nine tournaments to date, with the exception being 1995.
So far, the Americas have produced three RWC 2023 participants - Argentina, Uruguay and Chile - and two of those nations find themselves in those favorable positions courtesy of shock victories [both on aggregate] against the Eagles.
USA now is in danger of possibly missing out on qualification for just the second time, but with their backs against the wall and one last shot at making it to the big dance, there's every reason to believe Gary Gold's men will pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat.
Below, FloRugby takes a look at the Eagles' botched qualifier performances to date, maps out the one pathway to qualification still available to them and looks at the opposition standing in the way.
Disbelief At How Qualifying Plans Went South
Considering their form, coupled with their high standing in the World Rugby rankings - in comparison to the teams they were scheduled to face - the Eagles were expected to make it to the World Cup as either the Americas 1 or Americas 2 qualifier.
But yet again, it was proven that expectation oftentimes is a far cry from reality.
Having beaten Canada 59-50 on aggregate [they drew the two-test series 1-1] in 2021, the Eagles advanced to the Americas 1 playoff series against Uruguay.
So it came to pass: North America 1 versus South America 1 in a home-and-away series to determine the top World Cup entrant from the Americas region. Bear in mind, with the Canucks out of the way, this looked to be an easy run-in for the USA.
It all went according to plan in the first half of Game 1 for Gold's charges, as converted tries by Cameron Dolan and Christian Dyer put the hosts up 14-3.
When Mika Kruse extended that lead after the restart with his team's third try 10 minutes, the Eagles were well-placed to record a handsome victory.
Undeterred by the mounting challenge, Uruguay stayed in the fight through the boot of Felipe Berchesi, who split the uprights twice from the kicking tee.
The visitors added a try to their tally to reduce the deficit to just three points, and while the USA ultimately held on for a nervy triumph, it was all too close for comfort.
Despite being in control of much of the contest and hogging all the momentum, the result left the door slightly ajar for Uruguay as they headed for Game 2.
A week later in Montevideo, the Eagles found out first-hand that momentum is a fickle mistress. They were made to rue their sloppiness.
Los Teros knocked the door down with four tries on their way to clinch a 34-15 win - their biggest winning margin over the USA - thus qualifying for the World Cup as Americas 1 for the first time.
Over the same two-week period, Canada [North America 2] and Chile [South America 2] engaged in a repechage series to decide who progressed as the qualifier to the Americas 2 playoff against the USA.
As it turned out, the Chileans lost the first test 22-21, but won the second test 33-24 to beat Canada 54-46 on aggregate. The outcome means the Canucks will watch the World Cup from afar, drawing an end to their perfect attendance at the tournament dating back to 1987.
Be that as it may, the Eagles were set on a new target in their quest for World Cup status. They'd need to best Chile over a two-legged series in July 2022 to lock up a World Cup spot.
The same pattern, as with all the previous two-legged series within the Americas region, followed, as the tie was determined on aggregate. Unfortunately, the pattern of unpredictability also persisted, with Eagles suffering the same fate as their neighbors to the north (Canada) - an unceremonious and agonizing defeat.
While Chile basked in the glory of a looming maiden World Cup appearance, the Eagles were left pondering the "what ifs."
The situation left Gold with more questions than answers and very little time to figure out how to turn things around.
Last Chance Saloon For Eagles In Dubai
All is not lost for the USA.
With 19 of the 20 participating World Cup teams confirmed, the final entrant will be determined at a four-team event in Dubai, where the Eagles will compete in a round-robin tournament for the final RWC spot.
The tournament will run over three weeks from Nov. 6-18, and all four sides will play against each other once.
A win will be worth four log points, and a draw will be worth two points. A loss will result in no points.
Furthermore, attacking rugby will be rewarded justly, with teams earning a bonus point for scoring four or more tries. A bonus point also is on offer to teams that lose by seven points or fewer on the day.
The team finishing at the top of the standings automatically will be granted the final World Cup Cup ticket.
Who Are The Other Challengers, And What Are The Eagles' Chances?
The Eagles head into the qualifying tournament as clear favorites, but despite their superior World Rugby ranking, the other three nations - Hong Kong, Kenya and Portugal - are in this intercontinental playoff on merit.
The USA is 17th in the test rankings, and Portugal completes the top 20. Not far behind is Hong Kong, ranked 22nd. Kenya is 33rd.
Before leaving for Dubai, USA played several warm-up games in preparation for the mini tournament, and while the Eagles lost both matches in South Africa against the Cheetahs and Pumas, respectively, those performance went a long way in allaying Gold's fears that his players would not be up to the task in the clutch moments of the all-important World Cup qualifier.
"There was significant improvement the more we played in recent weeks, and I'm hoping that improvement translates to this World Cup qualifier," Gold told FloRugby.
So, what are the Eagles' chances?
Well, there is one main issue Gold needs to address, and that is their lack of cutting edge. It was what cost them in the Americas regional qualifiers, and it could be costly again.
They need to be more clinical when dominating possession and territory. Wasted opportunities and a sense of complacency (case in point being when they led 19-3 against Uruguay) once again could lead to the team's downfall, only this time, it would cost them a World Cup berth.
The overall view is that the Eagles will eventually prevail and nick the last available place in the World Cup, but it would make for interesting viewing and a few nervous USA fans, if the Americans find themselves in a position where they are on the back foot and forced to dig deep against minnow [Tier 3] nations in the heat of battle.
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