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The Eagles begin their Americas Rugby Championship title defense Saturday against Argentina XV at StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. If history is any indicator, the first game might as well be considered the championship game, as each of the competition’s first two years, these teams have finished first and second.
“Probably can’t win the title this weekend, but can probably go quite a long ways towards losing it,” starting flyhalf Will Magie said.
In 2016 the Argentines took home the hardware, and last year the Eagles did. Both of the meetings between these teams resulted in ties, and last year, the Eagles held a bonus point advantage which would see them earn the title.
There is a new variable this time around, though, as Team USA makes its first appearance under the guidance of new head coach Gary Gold. Gold hasn’t been in the States but for a couple of weeks, and he didn’t pick the player pool for this tournament, but he’s already made some tactical changes.
“It’s just slightly different style of play. Obviously, any head coach coming in is going to want to put his imprint on his team as quickly as possible,” said Magie. “We’ll probably see it on Saturday. But it’s been great. It’s a breath of fresh air. All the guys really excited for this weekend.”
One of the areas of the game Gold’s imprint will be most visible is in game management, and specifically choosing to play a bit more of a territorial game than the Eagles have over the last couple of years.
“Smart rugby is what we’re calling it. When you look at test rugby where you score tries, it’s quite rare you score these amazing, wonder, 75-meter tries. So it’s just about where we’re going to play in the right areas, and that doesn’t mean we’re just kicking the ball aimlessly away,” said Magie.
”It’s about smart, contestable kicks or kicking for space that’s opening up for us by the way we’re manipulating the defense, and just putting the onus on the 9s, 10s, 15s, centers who can kick, to put us in good areas that we can get excited about. Build pressure this weekend against the Argentinians, and force them to make errors which we capitalize one.”
One observation Gold has made early on is that Argentina is a rugby nation that likes to run with the ball. The top national team, the Pumas, are renowned for carrying the ball when other teams might opt to kick. If the USA’s defense is sound and its boot accurate, it could give the Argentines a long field much of the match.
The trick, though, is equaling the Argentines up front. Their scrum is expected to be superior, and they have some hard men who can carry. The Eagles have to win the gainline, or at least hold their own, in order to play the way they want.
“They like to have a bit of a play at it. They do like to throw the ball around, which can turn it into a bit of a loose game if the ball gets on the floor, which we’ve talked about. We know what to expect from them,” said Magie.
“Very physical, very passionate country about their rugby, and they’re going to try and play an open game, but we feel we’ve got a very good game plan which can counteract them, which can counteract them. We’ve got a very strong pack. The boys worked super hard on the November Tour, especially against Georgia, so we’re going to back our boys up front to do a job.”