With USA and Portugal looking equally dominant in wins over Hong Kong and Kenya in the first two rounds of the Final Qualification Tournament and so evenly matched on paper, we’re all set for a thrilling finale to the Rugby World Cup 2023 qualification journey which began in Europe 20 months ago.
USA are just 0.07 of a point below Portugal in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings powered by Capgemini, with Os Lobos in 18th place and the Men’s Eagles 19th, ahead of what is only the third meeting between the teams.
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Jose Lima was in the crowd with his Dad in the 2007 RWC watching Portugal. Can he help get his country back to another RWC in France 2023? 🤞#RWC2023 pic.twitter.com/s3bflUeDbE
Gary Gold, the USA head coach, has only made one injury-enforced change to his team with experienced campaigner Bryce Campbell coming in at outside centre for Marcel Brache, who picked up a calf injury in training.
Second-row Cam Dolan will win his 63rd cap, making him the third-highest capped USA player, in what is arguably his most important match in the jersey.
Winning Player of the Match last week against Hong Kong and wearing the number five jersey this Friday, Dolan will again look to lead the strong forward performance that is key to the USA’s chances of lining up in Pool C with Wales, Australia, Fiji and Georgia in France next year.
When asked about the magnitude of what is at stake, Gold refused to let his focus shift away from Friday’s match.
“It's a big game. I'm not sure it's the biggest game of our careers, but it's a big game,” he said.
“I mean for us it's important. It's a cliche, but it's important because it's our next game.
“We've got a short-term goal and our short-term goal is Friday night because we want to go to the World Cup next year.”
New York City native, Chris Mattina will also look to make his USA debut off the bench.
Portugal ready to front up
Only seven players will wear the same jersey for Portugal from the team that defeated Kenya 85-0 in round two.
The prolific Raffaele Storti returns to a new-look back three, which also features fellow wing Rodrigo Marta and full-back Nuno Sousa Guedes.
The midfield combination of captain Tomas Appleton and Jose Lima remains intact, as does the half-back partnership of goal-kicking scrum-half, Samuel Marques and influential fly-half Jeronimo Portela.
Props Francisco Fernandes and Diogo Ferreira pack down in the front row on either side of hooker Mike Tadjer and will have an important role to play given the USA’s strength up front.
Jose Madeira moves from the openside to join Steevy Cerqueira in the second row and Joao Granate and Rafael Simoes are on the flanker with Thibault de Freitas retained at number eight.
Portugal hooker, Mike Tadjer is expecting the USA to come at them all guns blazing in what will be Os Lobos biggest physical test since they played Georgia and the Argentina XV earlier in the year.
"It will be a very big fight against the USA, but we’ve worked hard on our scrum, our maul, and on rucks,” he said.
“I think we’ve had a good week and we’ll see on Friday who will be the best."
Whoever wins the match will be the higher-ranked of the two teams, while for Portugal a margin of over 15 points is required for them to overtake their Iberian rivals Spain.
Playing for pride
The USA-Portugal match follows on from the game between Hong Kong and Kenya, also at The Sevens stadium in Dubai.
Both teams were beaten by the USA and Portugal in the first two rounds and are out of contention for a place at Rugby World Cup 2023.
Hong Kong head coach Lewis Evans has taken the opportunity to freshen up his line-up with a number of “bruised bodies” in his squad needing rest.
Ashton Hyde and John McCormick-Houston are the two new faces in the front row at loose-head and hooker, while Kyle Sullivan packs down behind them in the second row.
The only change to the backs sees Guy Spanton come in on the left wing for Sean Taylor.
Looking ahead to the match, centre Tom Hill insisted Hong Kong will be doing everything they can to finish the tournament on a high.
“Obviously, we came here to qualify, which we can't do, which is disappointing. But I think anytime you play for Hong Kong, you want to put your best performance out there. And when else will we have this opportunity to play in the Final Qualification Tournament?
“So, I think we want to finish on a high, we want to beat Kenya and we are really looking forward to the weekend and putting out a good performance.”
Kenya go into the fixture on the back of a record 85-0 loss to Portugal and head coach Paul Odera is hoping for a positive response.
“It's been tough to pick the players up, especially after the Portuguese score, but we've tried to get into the boys that we need to finish with some pride and dignity and see how we want to go home and how we want to be remembered from this repechage,” he said.
“Obviously, it will be historical if we can get a win because no African team has won a game at the repechage in the past. So, it will be something for us to aim for.”