As Uruguay watched the USA qualify in the Americas 1 position for the first time in World Cup history, Los Teros also realized another milestone. For the first time in their history they will enter the Americas 2 qualifiers as favorites. This is not just due to their superior World Rugby Rankings position but also on the back of a win over Canada on home soil during the 2017 Americas Rugby Championship. While some might argue that a full-strength Canadian side – on paper – should be able to defeat the Teros, the very fact that it is debatable represents a significant step ahead for Uruguayan rugby.
Squad turnover and fatigue due to an expanded international calendar saw the Teros struggle somewhat in 2016. Their November tour in particular was a disappointment with much expected from in improving side, but with the development of the High Performance Center in Montevideo and improving fitness levels they have rebounded with an excellent season in 2017. After dropping a close match to the Eagles in San Antonio they produced their worst effort post-World Cup against the Argentina XV in Bahía Blanca. Since then, however, they have been in top form, winning nine consecutive matches including a clean sweep to lift the Nations Cup for the first time in June. They currently sit at 18th on the Rankings chart, five spots ahead of Canada.
Most of the Uruguayan side now resides in country which means they have plenty of time to train together but relatively few high level matches. The Americas Pacific Challenge will give them three games against ‘A’ level competition – though there could be an influx of talent in this year’s rendition – and presumably three test matches in November. A two-test series against Namibia has been strongly rumored but as of yet no details for any matches have been confirmed. It’s possible that further fixtures will be arranged to fill the gap between November and January.
As with Canada the majority of the squad will look the same as has been utilized in recent months. The return of Agustín Ormaechea from France leaves only three players abroad who are likely to fly in. Towering second row Manuel Leindekar, workhorse flanker Franco Lamanna, and star flyhalf Felipe Berchesi will join the team in January and while all are influential players, particularly the latter, it means the team will be well prepared for January with only game time potentially affecting their cohesion.
Of those who have been absent or only partially available there are a handful who could return to the lineup. World Cup hooker Germán Kessler has recently returned to the squad but faces a stern challenge for the starting hooker berth from incumbent Martín Espiga, a vastly experienced player who himself recently returned to contention after taking several years off to focus on his career as a medical doctor.
The graduation of Leindekar from the u20s to the senior group has added genuinely international size to the second row and more importantly the lineout. At 2.01m (6’7″) he is uncommonly big for a Uruguayan forward and is still growing. Most recently he has been paired with Ignacio Dotti, himself 1.95m (6’5″) and very active if a little under-powered. One who could return after a long layoff is Jorge Zerbino, absent since the World Cup with a back injury. Slightly shorter than Dotti but significantly more muscular, Zerbino could add to the options in an already technically sound unit.
Another who has been absent for many months with a knee problem is Matías Beer. The 1.94m (6’4″) flanker will have used the time off to add bulk to a slender frame. Whether he can force his way back into the side is another matter. Uruguay now have depth in the back row with the emergence of Rodolfo Garese and Gonzalo Soto to go alongside Lamanna and captain Juan Manuel Gaminara, while Santiago Hernández is another dynamic alternative.
Youth has also forced its way into the backline where Juan Manuel Cat has established himself as a gifted attacking player in the outside center channel. The potential return of the outstanding Joaquín Prada could make selections more complicated. First choice at the World Cup and still just reaching his 26th birthday, Prada has dedicated his time to his medical studies but could now return to the side in time to make a run at the 2019 World Cup. Versatile goal-kicker Jerónimo Etcheverry has missed out with injury in recent months but his accurate left boot and ability to play across the backline with quality makes him a very useful squad addition.
There’s no question that this represents Uruguay’s greatest opportunity to date to win the Americas 2 spot. They caused the USA problems four years ago and will be very confident approaching their confrontation with Canada. If they can maintain their winning form in the Americas Pacific Challenge and whoever lies ahead in November, their chances can only increase. As of today even the most ardent Canadian supporter must concede that the Teros have the upper hand. Whether they can retain it over the next six months is the matter at hand.