Canada produced one of their best displays in recent times to upset the US Eagles and win big in St John’s, Newfoundland on Saturday.
Kingsley Jones’ side will now take a two-score lead into next Saturday’s rematch at Infinity Park in Glendale, Colorado as they look to book a date with Sudamerica Rugby (SAR) 3 Naciones winners Uruguay in the next stage of the qualification process.
The aggregate winner of the Rugby Americas North (RAN) 1 play-off between Canada and the USA will take on Los Teros, in another home-and-away series in October, to determine who will go to Rugby World Cup 2023 as Americas 1.
The loser of the RAN 1 play-off will take on Chile, the SAR 3 Naciones runners-up, to keep their RWC 2023 hopes alive with the winner to play in the Americas 2 play-off against the loser of that Americas 1 encounter.
Returning for the first time to the venue where they suffered a record 56-7 defeat to Canada back in August 2006, the USA went into the RAN 1 play-off as favourites on the back of a 12-match unbeaten run against their neighbours.
But Gary Gold’s side struggled to get the measure of both their opponents and the strong wind at Swilers Rugby Club in St John’s and only led 14-10 at half-time despite Canada losing two men to the sin-bin.
USA’s first points came from a penalty try and resulted in Matt Heaton having a 10-minute breather for pulling down an advancing Eagles maul two metres out.
With six minutes on the clock, Corey Thomas replied for the home side when he hit the line at pace and squeezed through a gap between two defenders from close range.
A Will Magie high tackle was then punished by fly-half Peter Nelson as Canada went 10-7 up. But they were down to 14 men again when Conor Keys saw yellow for a high tackle on Eagles full-back Luke Carty.
As the half drew to a close, there was mixed news for anxious Eagles supporters, Hanco Germishuys' try being followed by an HIA for fellow back-row, Cam Dolan.
The absence of their most experienced player hit the Eagles hard and their performance continued to be littered with mistakes.
The second half belonged to Canada with three tries and 24 unanswered points in as many minutes, although the Eagles clawed back what could be seven crucial points when Tavite Lopeti scored on his debut at the death and AJ MacGinty knocked over the simple conversion.
Canada’s devastating scoring spree had seen them score tries through captain Lucas Rumball, Ben LeSage and Brock Webster.
Rumball’s try came not long after the restart and was the result of the sort of patient phase play the Eagles seemed incapable of producing themselves.
It set the tone for the rest of the half and LeSage was next to cross the whitewash after the USA rearguard failed to deal with a high kick, a trait they repeated time and time again.
With Nelson adding three points from the kicking tee, Canada found themselves 27-14 ahead with 17 minutes to go. The scoreboard pressure told on the Eagles who were now having to force the play in a bid to reduce the arrears.
A now well-disciplined defence dealt with everything that was thrown at them, however, and to the horror of Eagles replacement, MacGinty, his pass inside the Canadian 22 was anticipated and expertly picked off by debutant Webster who raced downfield to put even more distance between the teams.
Winger Christian Dyer had a try pulled back for crossing in the build-up on 78 minutes on a night when everything seemed to go wrong for the Eagles.
However, Lopeti’s late consolation could be just the lifeline the out-of-sorts Eagles need. Only time will tell.
Photo credit: Jeff Parsons