In front of 4,000 fans in Glendale, Colorado, los Cóndores of Chile downed the US Eagles 31-29 in a riotous game to secure a place in France next year, 52-51 on aggregate over two qualifying matches. The Americans, who will host the men’s World Cup in 2031 and the women two years later, can still qualify but must do so through the last-chance repechage event.
World Rugby, which has nine years to sell its game to the American public, will be hugely concerned – and hugely delighted for Chile, who were mightily impressive in their resilience and verve before their pack, battered all day, rose to win the penalty that won a World Cup spot.
The US coach, Gary Gold, told reporters his players were “just devastated. It’s just heartbreaking. I just feel so bad for the boys who tried so hard and it’s just the cruelty of sport and it’s just devastating. I’m not sure what else to say.”
On a hot afternoon Gold’s Eagles started strongly, keeping the ball in hand, AJ MacGinty, the captain of England’s Bristol Bears, darting from fly-half. The South Americans also had problems at the scrum, thanks to the Los Angeles hooker Joe Taufete’e and his props, David Ainu’u of Toulouse and Paul Mullen of Utah.
The first try came from a lineout, a drive, a blindside break from the scrum-half, Ruben de Haas of Saracens, a kick from Martin Iosefo of Seattle and a bit of juggling from de Haas to put his wing over. MacGinty converted.
The Eagles turned down a penalty shot when 7-0 up, 29-21 on aggregate after a one-point squeak in Santiago a week before. The lineout move worked but the flanker Hanco Germishuys knocked on.
Iosefo scored the second try, on the end of a concerted attack, left to right, short and wide passes and heavy work from the big men. Nick Civetta, a big second row from New York, slipped a vital pass from contact. That made it 14-0 and 36-21.
Chile had barely seen the ball. The Eagles chose a scrum from another penalty and the other lock, Greg Peterson, crashed over only to see the try ruled out because the referee, Luke Pearce, was in the way of the nearest defender. No matter. Cam Dolan flipped the ball from No8 and MacGinty jinked over. At 19-0 on 30 minutes, 41-21 over two games, the ticket to France looked booked.
After the game, MacGinty said: “We scored three tries by imposing ourselves on them and put them under massive, massive pressure … you could see lots of disbelief in their eyes. We were in charge of the game.”
But then Civetta was shown a yellow card at a ruck, avoiding red because Pearce saw him hit Chile’s prop Salvador Lues on the body first, then the head. It was a hugely consequential moment.
Chile kicked to touch, drove the lineout and their scrum-half, Marcelo Torrealba, dummied and darted for a fine try. The winger Santiago Videla converted: 19-7 on the day, 41-28 overall. Incredibly there was more before half-time, Lues making a rumbling break and Matias Garafulic, the centre, scoring when the ball went wide. With the conversion it was 19-14 and 41-35. Game on.
The vernacular term for the offence which could have let Chile close to 19-17 straight away in the second half is “shithousery”: Taufete’e chose to throw a Chilean forward’s boot from the field. It was pointless as it was potentially costly and perhaps indicated a team suddenly rattled, but Videla missed the kick.
Chile brought on front-row replacements. The Eagles pack went forward anyway. MacGinty kicked to touch again. This time Taufete’e broke from the maul and, a better sort of mobile outhouse, steamrolled Torrealba. MacGinty converted the try for 26-14, 48-35 on aggregate.
Yet again, Chile came back. Videla scored the try off a superb break from Rodrigo Fernández, the fly-half who went 80 metres to score in Santiago. Videla converted: 26-21, 48-42 overall.
Iosefo went desperately close to a hat-trick, just pushed out of play. In a measure of how serious things were getting, MacGinty chose to kick a penalty: 29-21, 51-42.
Yet again Chile closed, the replacement prop Matías Dittus crashing over, Videla converting. USA 29-28, 51-49. Then the US centre Tavite Lopete was penalised for hands in a ruck. Francisco Urroz lined up the kick from distance, for the lead, and missed.
A scrum penalty won by Angus McClennan of Utah, in a fresh US front row, might’ve been the moment the Eagles escaped to victory. But MacGinty kicked out on the full. Benja Bonasso of New York stole the Chile lineout. Nate Augspurger of San Diego, on at scrum-half, kicked straight into touch himself.
Then Chile’s forwards found a monumental drive, splintering the Eagles. Videla lined up the penalty. It went over and Chile led, 31-29, 52-51 on aggregate.
The Eagles smashed forward. Javier Carrasco failed to roll away at a ruck. MacGinty lined up the penalty for the win and the World Cup but it was reversed for a dangerous neck-roll by the prop Chance Wenglewski. Chile cleared to touch – and glory.
Chile’s captain, the flanker Martín Sigren, said: “It really means so much… the sacrifices that this team has done, there were times when it seemed like it was uphill. I want to thank all the family who came here, they were the ones who kept us pushing.”
Gold paid tribute to los Cóndores.
“We knew they weren’t going away. They didn’t go away in Canada. They didn’t go away against Uruguay. They didn’t go away last weekend … Credit to them for the fight … I’m just really impressed by South American rugby and how it’s turned the corner.”
So it has, to North America’s cost. Chile will join Argentina in Pool D in France – and England, Japan and Samoa. Uruguay will also compete. The US have one last chance to avoid looking on from afar.