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Canada and the U.S. Eagles will both be missing players from their starting lineup when they kick off their two-legged Rugby World Cup qualifying series Saturday in St. John's, N.L.
Star fly half A.J. MacGinty, who had been tabbed to captain the Eagles, will start on the bench after travel complications. Canada coach Kingsley Jones, meanwhile, is without lock Kyle Baillie, wing Cole Davis and prop Jake Ilnicki, who are not 100 per cent fit.
The 16th-ranked Eagles and 22nd-ranked Canadians will meet again Sept. 11 in the return leg in Glendale, Colo. The aggregate winner will advance to face No. 17 Uruguay in early October to determine who slots into Pool A at the 2023 World Cup in France in Pool A alongside No. 2 New Zealand, No. 5 France, No 14 Italy and Africa 1.
The loser of that October series has another chance to qualify, as does the Canada-U. S. loser, although the route becomes more complicated.
MacGinty, who plays his club rugby in England for Sale Sharks, was not expected to arrive in St. John's until later Thursday.
"It has been a bit of a nightmare for A.J., just in terms of the fact that it has taken him so long to get in here," U.S. coach Gary Gold said Thursday. "But the good thing is he's been in the States for a few days so he had had an opportunity to acclimatize."
"He will be available for us (off the bench) which is good news, but it's been a bit of a challenge to say the least," he added.
Will Magie of the Austin Gilgronis will start in MacGinty's place.
Flanker Lucas Rumball, one of 11 Toronto Arrows players in the matchday 23, will captain Canada with Arrows teammate Ben LeSage as vice-captain.
There are three Toronto players in the forward pack and three in the backline, not counting wing Kainoa Lloyd who is a former Arrow. Five others are on the bench.
"It's definitely given us a little bit of cohesion," Jones said of the Toronto contingent.
Arrows centre Spencer Jones and wing Brock Webster, from the Canada sevens program, both start and earn their first caps. Toronto forward Mason Flesch and scrum half Jason Higgins could debut off the bench.
Canadian fly half Peter Nelson will serve as kicker, with Cooper Coats also available if needed. Jones can also kick.
Uncapped Seattle Seawolves centre Tavita Lopeti is on the U.S. bench.
With the pandemic interrupting rugby's international schedule, both teams have played just two games — during the July test window — since the 2019 World Cup.
Canada lost 68-12 to No. 9 Wales and 70-14 to No. 3 England in its lone action since falling 66-7 to eventual champion South Africa at the World Cup in Japan on Oct. 8, 2019.
The Americans were beaten 43-29 by England and 71-10 by No. 4 Ireland in July.
The Canada-U. S. loser will face No. 28 Chile in an October home-and-away playoff with the winner facing the loser of the North America-Uruguay series to determine who advances to the World Cup as Americas 2 in Pool D with No. 3 England, No. 7 Argentina, No. 10 Japan and No. 13 Samoa.
The loser of that playoff has one more chance to join them via repechage.
Uruguay advanced to face the Canada-U. S. winner by finishing first in a three-team South American tournament over runner-up Chile and Brazil.
The Canadian men, who have never missed a World Cup, had booked their ticket in the first stage of qualifying until last time out. Canada made it to the 2019 tournament the hard way, winning a four-team repechage after losing playoff series to the U.S. (80-44 on aggregate) and Uruguay (70-50 on aggregate).
The North American rivals last met in 2019 when the Americans rallied from a 12-0 deficit to beat Canada 20-15 at B.C. Place stadium in a warmup match ahead of the Japan World Cup.
The U.S. has not lost to Canada since 2013. The two sides drew 28-28 in the first leg of their qualifying series ahead of the 2019 World Cup.
The U.S. bench proved to be the difference in the second leg of that qualifying series, with the Eagles scoring 33 points in the last 26 minutes en route to a 52-16 victory in San Diego.
On Saturday, Gold will be able to call on replacement front-rowers Kapeli Pifeleti (Saracens, England), David Ainu'u (Toulouse, France) and Joe Taufete'e (Lyon, France) as well as MacGinty.
"I think they're looking at the last 20 minutes," Jones said in surveying the American bench.
Both teams draw heavily on Major League Rugby talent. There are 17 MLR players in Canada's matchday 23 (not counting former MLR players Djustice Sears-Duru and Lloyd) and 16 in the U.S. squad.
That makes for a lot of familiarity, more so given the two teams are staying in the same hotel.
"We're all good friends but this week it can't be that way," said U.S. skipper Bryce Campbell, who plays for the Austin Gilgronis.
There are also ties in the U.S. team. The Eagles pack features four members of Rugby United New York.
Jones; squad has had its own travel issues. Nelson, who plays in France, did not arrive until last Saturday but wasn't able to train until passing COVID tests Monday.
The forecast for the 3 p.m. local time kickoff, at Swilers Rugby Club, calls for showers with a high of 18 Celsius.
Canada (with hometown and club)
Djustice Sears-Duru, Oakville, Ont., unattached; Andrew Quattrin, Holland Landing, Ont., Toronto Arrows (MLR); Matt Tierney, Oakville, Ont., Castres Olympique (France); Corey Thomas, Perth, Australia, Los Angeles Giltinis (MLR); Conor Keys, Stittsvile, Ont., Rugby ATL (MLR); Lucas Rumball (capt.), Markham, Ont., Toronto Arrows (MLR); Matt Heaton, Godmanchester, Que., Rugby ATL (MLR); Siaki Vikilani, Burnaby, B.C., Toronto Arrows (MLR); Ross Braude, Pretoria, South Africa, Toronto Arrows (MLR); Peter Nelson — Dungannon, Northern Ireland, Stade Aurillacois Cantal Auvergne (France); Kainoa Lloyd, Mississauga, Ont., James Bay AA; Spencer Jones, Cambridge, New Zealand, Toronto Arrows (MLR); Ben LeSage, Calgary, AB — Toronto Arrows (MLR); Brock Webster, Uxbridge, Ont., Canada Sevens; Cooper Coats, Halifax, Canada Sevens.
Eric Howard, Ottawa, NOLA Gold (MLR); Cole Keith, Apohaqui, N.B., Toronto Arrows (MLR); Tyler Rowland, Mississauga, Ont., Toronto Arrows (MLR); Mason Flesch, Cobourg, Ont., Toronto Arrows (MLR); Michael Smith, White Rock, B.C., San Diego Legion (MLR); Rob Povey, Long Buckly, England, Houston Sabercats (MLR); Jason Higgins, Cork, Ireland, Toronto Arrows (MLR); Patrick Parfrey, St. John's, NL, Toronto Arrows (MLR).
Chance Wenglewski, Rugby ATL (MLR); Dylan Fawsitt, Rugby United New York (MLR); Paul Mullen, Utah Warriors (MLR); Nate Brakeley, Rugby United New York (MLR); Nick Civetta, Rugby United New York (MLR); Hanco Germishuys, Rugby United New York (MLR); Jamason Fa'anana-Schultz, Old Glory DC (MLR); Cam Dolan, NOLA Gold (MLR); Ruben De Haas, Saracens (England); Will Magie, Austin Gilgronis (MLR); Mika Kruse, Utah Warriors (MLR); Bryce Campbell (capt.), Austin Gilgronis (MLR); Marcel Brache, unattached; Christian Dyer, USA Sevens; Luke Carty, Los Angeles Giltinis (MLR).
Kapeli Pifeleti, Saracens (England); David Ainu'u, Toulouse (France); Joe Taufete'e, Lyon (France); Siaosi Mahoni, San Diego Legion (MLR); Andrew Guerra, NOLA Gold (MLR); Nate Augspurger, San Diego Legion (MLR); Tavita Lopeti, Seattle Seawolves; A.J. MacGinty, Sale Sharks (England).
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 2, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press