By Mitch Phillips
TOKYO (Reuters) – Playing a dead rubber is unfamiliar territory for Argentina, who reached the semi-finals of two of the last three World Cups, and having to drag themselves off the floor to face a fired-up United States team on Wednesday will be a test of resilience.
The last time they failed to get out of the pool stage was in 2003, when they lost by a point to Ireland in their decisive final game, and they have to go back to 1995 to find a similarly flat ending – when they lost to England, Samoa and then, with nothing on the line, Italy.
Now, after defeats by England and France, the dream is over – and early. The Pumas’ form hardly suggests it is a surprise, either, having now lost 29 of their last 34 games.
Frustrated coach Mario Ledesma is using his last Pool C fixture to give more of his squad the opportunity for a taste of the World Cup action, making nine changes to the team that started against England.
Only Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Santiago Carreras, Jeronimo de la Fuente, Guido Petti, Pablo Matera and Julian Montoya remain. Nicolas Sanchez, controversially left out of the 23 against England, is back to start at flyhalf, partnering scrumhalf Felipe Ezcurra, who will be making his second start in his seventh appearance.
Lock Tomas Lavanini, who was sent off after 17 minutes against England, is unavailable as he serves the first of a four-match ban for his high hit on Owen Farrell.
The Pumas will have to try to rouse themselves to avoid what would be a humiliating finale to a desperately disappointing campaign. They have beaten the United States in all five previous fixtures, though the last of them was 18 years ago.
The Americans showed areas of improvement against England and France and will see this as a great opportunity to secure what would be only their fourth win in 26 World Cup games – with the chance of a famous second in their final game to come against Tonga.
“With Argentina’s short turnaround, then losing to England and not qualifying and the disappointment they’re facing, they might not show up as well as they would have if they were qualifying,” said flyhalf AJ MacGinty.
“Any time we play competitive games against the tier-one nations, I feel like we get better week to week. Having the games against England and France, the pressure is on us to deliver another performance that’s even better than the France game. Our focus is on that. If we can do that as a squad and as individuals, then that puts us in a good place for beating Argentina.”
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips; Editing by Robert Birsel)