Loose Pass: Unpacking Chile’s win over USA that booked Rugby World Cup ticket and that Andrew Porter decision in New Zealand

Lawrence Nolan

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the big results, big calls and things to ponder…

The biggest result of the weekend

It wasn’t just the result, it was the manner in which they got it. Away from home, against a ferocious onslaught from the home side and a partisan crowd, the team dug in and produced the moments of quality when it counted, never giving up, always staying focused, until finally, they got over the line.

Ireland? No – well, yes, obviously, but assuming you have not been holidaying on Mars to escape the heat/pandemic/economic crisis this past weekend, you would have known about Ireland already.

No, this refers to Chile, whose 31-29 win over the USA in Colorado on Saturday took Los Condores to their first Rugby World Cup – setting themselves up a fun-looking derby with Argentina in Pool D along with it.

Chile trailed for 154 of the 160 minutes of the play-off. The atrocious conditions in Santiago last week had been a great leveller and played very much into the USA forward pack’s hands in the 22-21 defeat. But Chile had two major weapons in the boot of left wing Santiago Videla and the indomitable running of fly-half Rodrigo Fernandez, whose try in the first match was surely a contender for world try of the year. The combination of both meant that the team stayed in touch, before Videla’s nerveless 40 metre penalty six minutes from time in Glendale sealed the deal.

The effects of the bulk of the team competing together in the Superliga Americana de Rugby (SLAR) also looked to make themselves felt in both games, which Chile finished much stronger both times. USA coach Gary Gold, who has had to put up with unimagineable disruptions during preparations, said as much at the end: “It would be amazing if we could just spend a little bit more time together – a lot more time together – and be playing more together, and learning these lessons as opposed to coming in fleetingly and then having to panically assemble and disassemble.”

“We’re not cohesive. We haven’t got the opportunity to spend 10-12 weeks like Selknam (Chile’s SLAR team) did and be able to give those opportunities. So that’s the continual balancing and juggling act that we have, between those two dilemmas.”

Considering the USA is hosting the 2031 Rugby World Cup, the union in the country has some serious thinking to do – many a fan was lamenting the supposed incompetence of the administrators, as well as the self-serving chaos that Major League Rugby has managed to create. World Rugby needs to have a bit of a think too; it’s all very well talking about potential market sizes and such, but if the host union can’t raise its national team’s level it will create an awkward problem in terms of enthusiasm for the sport. More so if Canada’s downward spiral continues.

World Rugby CEO Alan Gilpin pointed to the success of the USA sevens team in the World Series, but that won’t wash with many purists, while the conflict between sevens and the full game has been in no small way responsible for the downturn in Canada’s fortunes – and those of a few other teams hovering around just outside the World Top 20.

Qualification for a first World Cup for Chile will inevitably be a huge boost to the game in the country, which actually has a fine, if small, rugby tradition. And with Uruguay also through, South America will have three teams at the finals for the first time ever, impressive stuff considering the challenges unique to that continent.

The USA’s challenges are different, but no less intense. The squad will not come together again until before the repechage tournament in Dubai in November, where they will face Portugal, Kenya and most likely Hong Kong. The Eagles have the highest world ranking, but Portugal’s squad has also been boosted by the bulk of their squad playing for one professional team, the Lusitanos, in the Rugby Europe Super Cup. They lost the final this year to the Black Lion team from Georgia, while the national team more recently pushed Italy to the wire. The Eagles have their work cut out. Los Condores, on the other hand, are flying high.

The biggest call of the weekend

That Ireland were superior has not been disputed by many New Zealanders, nor will this correspondent attempt to go down that road. The tour win and the match win were fully merited.

Which probably explains why there’s less kerfuffle over Andrew Porter only seeing yellow for his tackle on Brodie Retallick. But it was a decision that beggars belief – post-match citing notwithstanding.

The argumentation went that Porter’s action was more passive, that he was not moving into the tackle and thus ‘absorbed’ the contact rather than initiating it. That’s going to be a curious one for Retallick to consider as he sits on the sidelines for the next couple of months while his broken cheekbone mends. He’ll have to ponder such questions as ‘was I a little too vigorous when cheekboning the tackler? Should I have run fully upright at my 2m height so as to ensure that there’s no chance of a 1m83 tackler’s head hitting mine? Maybe next time I should try not to run so straight?’

The argumentation was easy to follow, but the difference between Porter’s tackle and Angus Ta’avao’s the week before was microscopic. You suspect that had the home side not needed to focus on their own shortcomings, this could have been a debate that would have raged and raged.

The darkest moment of the weekend

Yet another one of rugby’s former high-profile professionals has now succumbed to early-onset dementia. Former Wales captain Ryan Jones’ tear-jerking Sunday Times interview this weekend provided both a stark reminder of how much the game has changed over the past 27 years and of how much is now at stake as the issue of concussion and liability grinds its way through the legal mills.

“Rugby is walking headlong with its eyes closed into a catastrophic situation,” said Jones.

“I am a product of an environment that is all about process and human performance. I’m not able to perform like I could, and I just want to lead a happy, healthy, normal life. I feel that’s been taken away and there’s nothing I can do.”

Michael Lipman, Alix Popham, Carl Hayman, Ryan Jones… and that’s just those from the professional era, just the ones we know about. How many more will there be? Thinking back to the ferocity of much of the weekend’s action, the answer might be uncomfortably large.

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