Pumas must refocus against Eagles to earn 3rd place in pool

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              The United States team react following their Rugby World Cup Pool C game at Fukuoka Hakatanomori Stadium between France and the United States in Fukuoka, Japan, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. France defeated the United States 33-9.(Jun Hirata/Kyodo News via AP)
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The door to the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals door has shut on Argentina.

After two semifinals and a quarterfinal appearance in the last three Rugby World Cups, the Pumas farewell the ongoing tournament in Japan in their last Pool C game on Wednesday against the United States in Kumagaya.

In reality, Argentina has been saying farewell since the opening weekend when Benjamin Urdapilleta missed a long-range penalty in the 79th minute and France held on to win 23-21. Argentina beat Tonga then lost to England 39-10 on Saturday with 14 men. Its earliest exit in 16 years was confirmed on Sunday when France beat Tonga.

The only consolation left for Argentina is to finish third in the pool and earn automatic qualification for the 2023 tournament in, ironically, France.

To that end, plus being mindful of a four-day turnaround, Argentina coach Mario Ledesma upended his side and made nine changes to the starting lineup in hope that fresh minds and legs can give them a fresh boost.

It features the return of starting flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez, who was dropped to the reserves after the France loss, and dropped altogether after the Tonga win. Sanchez owns the Pumas test points record, but he has been off his game in Japan like so many other teammates, and been handed a chance by Ledesma to redeem himself.

There are four who will make their first appearances in this tournament, including flanker Juan Manuel Leguizamon, who will play in his fourth World Cup. He’s the only survivor from the 2007 Pumas team which reached the semifinals for the first time. The others getting a first run were No. 8 Rodrigo Bruni, center Juan Cruz Mallia, and fullback Joaquin Tuculet.

Scrumhalf Gonzalo Bertranou, summoned on Saturday after Tomas Cubelli picked up a tournament-ending calf injury against England, could also make his first appearance off the bench. That meant only two-cap hooker Santiago Socino in the squad will not have appeared in this World Cup, as Ledesma stuck with Julian Montoya and former captain Agustin Creevy.

If finishing third is a comedown to a side that believed it could make a fourth consecutive quarterfinals, then the Pumas ought to be motivated by listening to the Americans, who have made third a major goal. The chance to automatically qualify for a Rugby World Cup for the first time is still possible.

“With Argentina’s short turnaround, then losing to England and not qualifying, and the disappointment they’re facing, they mightn’t show up as well as they would have if they were qualifying,” Eagles flyhalf AJ MacGinty said. “As much as that might play a factor, we still have to back up our performance.”

The Americans were mauled by England but trailed France only 12-9 with 15 minutes to go. They lost 33-9, but they were somewhat pleased, especially with their discipline. They conceded only four penalties against France, and are determined to repeat against the feisty Argentines.

“The pressure is on us to deliver another performance that’s even better than the France game,” MacGinty said. “If we can do that as a squad and as individuals, then that puts us in a good place for beating Argentina.”

The United States has lost eight straight Rugby World Cup games dating to 2011, and MacGinty said they can end the streak on Wednesday.

“A third-place finish is something that’s never been done. For us, that’s a massive motivational thing,” he added.

To try to end eight straight losses to Argentina over 30 years, in their first matchup in 16 years, the United States made five changes to the starting lineup, two of them positional.

Lock Greg Peterson is up from the reserves in the only change to the pack, Paul de Haas is at scrumhalf after Cam Dolan started in the losses to England and France, and Paul Lasike is at inside center so a tall Marcel Brache is on the wing to counter Argentina’s kicking game.