Honours even after USA and Uruguay draw
The race to secure the Americas 2 place at Rugby World Cup 2015 is still on after Uruguay and USA drew 27-27 in the first leg of their play-off at the Charrua Stadium in Montevideo on Saturday.
Favourites going into the match, the USA Eagles looked to have secured an advantage to take back to Atlanta next weekend, only for Agustin Ormaechea's try seven minutes from time to give Uruguay a deserved draw.
With a place in Pool B alongside South Africa, Samoa, Scotland and the Asian qualifier awaiting the aggregate winner, it was perhaps inevitable that the opening minutes would be a cagey affair with USA centre Folau Niua and Uruguay fly half Felipe Berchesi trading early penalties.
Both then missed a kick before Berchesi edged Los Teros ahead in the 22nd minute. The hosts then lost a man to the sin-bin, allowing Niua to level the scores again. However, that would be the last points the Eagles scored while they had the advantage as Uruguay took control of the match, Berchesi kicking his third penalty after an offence from the kick-off.
Centre Joaquin Prada then gathered a loose ball near halfway and raced down the touchline to ground the ball despite the desperate tackle of the covering Chris Wyles, the try being awarded after a lengthy deliberation by the television match official.
Berchesi slotted the conversion from the touchline and then added a penalty to take Uruguay out to a 19-6 lead, much to the delight of the home crowd. The Eagles, though, finished the half strongly with hooker Phillip Thiel going over after a prolonged attack on their opponent's line, Niua's kick cutting the deficit to 19-13 at the break.
Experience tells for Eagles
The second half began with an early Berchesi penalty to increase Uruguay's lead, but the higher ranked Eagles then began to make their greater experience count over a side featuring 10 players to have come through the Junior World Championship or Junior World Rugby Trophy pathways.
First Northampton Saints second row Samu Manoa charged through the defence on halfway and raced away under the posts, and then six minutes later Saracens full back Wyles was put through to give the Eagles the lead for the first time since the third minute.
The Eagles threatened to run away with the match as replacement Luke Hume broke, only to be hauled into touch, but Uruguay gradually steadied the ship and began to play more in their opponent's half once more, missing out on a chance to cut the deficit when Berchesi missed with a penalty attempt.
As the clock entered the final 10 minutes, Uruguay began to pile on the pressure and gained an advantage when replacement prop Nick Wallace was sin-binned by referee Mathieu Raynal for repeated iinfringements in a scrum metres from his own line.
From the resultant scrum, the ball was picked up at the back and fed out to scrum half Ormaechea, the son of former Uruguay captain and coach Diego having just enough space to get over the line. It took time for the TMO to confirm the try and Berchesi's kick drifted agonisingly wide to deny Uruguay a first win over their opponents since 2002.
"We are very happy about the match we played," admitted Berchesi. "We were not the favourites and most people were expecting us to lose easily. At the same time the qualifier is still open and I hope we can have a great match away but we need to make no mistakes."
USA coach Mike Tolkin added: “In the second half we did more often what we wanted to do, and we did it efficiently. First half also we have away a lot of penalties. We’ll look at the film and see where they were, some of them were just poor decisions when people should stay out of it. The second half wasn’t as bad in terms of having bad penalties.”
The sides will come face to face again at the Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Atlanta next Saturday for the right to qualify for RWC 2015 as Americas 2. For the loser, the dream is not over as they will enter the cross-continental repechage to determine the 20th and final qualifier for England 2015.
The match in Atlanta will be streamed live on rugbyworldcup.com.