If ever there was a series that could open the Rugby World Cup door for Chile, this is it.
The Chilean Cóndores will take on the USA Eagles home and away over the next couple of weekends, with the winner on aggregate qualifying to Pool D with England, Japan, Argentina and Samoa at Rugby World Cup 2023.
Scotland A recently visited Santiago in what was a key game for the team to finalise their preparations. The 45-5 loss was a learning curve for Chile with many positive takeaways, according to captain Martín Sigren.
Watching from the stands at the time as he was not fully fit, the 26-year old flanker explained: “They were of a higher standard which forced us to play at a faster pace; yet it was a masterclass, which was very good for us.”
Overwhelmed in the first half, the second half witnessed a Chilean side getting its share of the limelight.
“We managed to play for some time at a speed and intensity that we didn’t know we could. It is motivating to know that we can play at that level.”
"All their tries came from unforced errors, so fine-tuning will be crucial,” acknowledges Sigren.
Going into the final minutes, Scotland was winning 33-5, with Chile’s try coming from flanker Santiago Edwards, who replaced a now-fit Sigren for that game.
“The second half stayed at 7-5 for 39 minutes. They then scored two tries in the last couple of minutes. The score maybe did not reflect the game as such.”
This game was always going to be a warm-up for Chile's greatest rugby challenge yet, which comes in the form of a two-match series against the USA and the possibility of qualifying for Rugby World Cup 2023.
In that sense, the match against Scotland A came at the right time as it allowed the team to play in front of a big crowd, the 10,000 tickets put on sale for seats at Estadio Santa Laura completely sold-out.
“We liked the new stadium. The crowd is very close, it has a good vibe,” adds the captain. “Hopefully, it can be at full capacity.”
Chile is certainly not taking the series lightly. They have never been so close to rugby’s biggest stage, something of which they're acutely aware.
Head coach Pablo Lemoine played in Rugby World Cup 1999 and 2003 with Uruguay, and then took Uruguay to England in 2015. Having 'been there and done that' has allowed him to plan well.
Most of the players in the squad were losing finalists in the Superliga Americana de Rugby with Selknam.
“Losing that final was very hard,” recalls Sigren. “Yet, in hindsight, it was a good tournament which we enjoyed. We learnt how to be more relaxed about it, enjoy ourselves on the field, enjoy the moment.
“That comes with experience and we have learnt to control and enjoy the pressure.”
At the start of the season, a visit to the Cajón del Maipo, a gorge in central Chile, was a great team bonding exercise. “We opened up as people and as a team, getting to know what our individual dreams and goals are. It helped enormously.”
After a handful of days off following the conclusion of South America’s premier tournament, Chile set off for a two-week camp, taking them to Antofagasta first, to work in the newly created HP Academy in this northern seaside city and then to Calama, a mining city, 2,300 metres into the Andes, in the Atacama desert.
“The second game against USA is in Denver, with an altitude of 1,600 metres. Training at altitude will be of great help.”
With a few days to go until what is their biggest game ever, how is the team doing?
“We are in a good place, working on the details that we believe will make the difference. We now have many more weapons to deal with a high-pressure game such as this.”
With their full squad available, Chile will try to join Argentina and Uruguay in France.
Playing against Japan in Toulouse on 10 September, Samoa in Bordeaux six days later, England in Lille on the 23rd and then rounding off the first part of Rugby World Cup 2023 against Argentina in the Stade de la Beujoire, Nantes, would kick-start a revolution in Chilean sport, not to mention rugby.
That pressure is on the shoulders of the team and their young captain, who have learnt to handle it.
“They will be very hard games; we are ready and will give our all,” concludes Sigren.