The door to the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals door has shut on Argentina.
After two semi-finals and a quarter-final appearance in the last three Rugby World Cups, the Pumas farewell the ongoing tournament in Japan in their last Pool C game on Wednesday against the United States in Kumagaya.
In reality, the Pumas has been saying farewell since the opening weekend when Benjamín Urdapilleta missed a long-range penalty in the 79th minute and France held on to win 23-21. The Albiceleste beat Tonga then lost to England 39-10 on Saturday with 14 men. Argentina's earliest exit in 16 years was confirmed on Sunday when France beat Tonga.
The only consolation left for Argentina would be to finish third in the pool and earn automatic qualification for the 2023 tournament in, ironically, France.
To that end, plus being mindful of a four-day turnaround, coach Mario Ledesma has upended his side and made nine changes to the starting line-up in hope that fresh minds and legs can give them a fresh boost.
It features the return of starting fly-half Nicolás Sánchez, who was dropped to the reserves after the France loss, and dropped altogether after the Tonga win. Sánchez owns the Pumas test points record, but he has been off his game in Japan like so many other teammates, and been handed a chance by Ledesma to redeem himself.
There are four who will make their first appearances in this tournament, including flanker Juan Manuel Leguizamón, who will play in his fourth World Cup. He's the only survivor from the 2007 Pumas team which reached the semifinals for the first time. The others getting a first run were No. 8 Rodrigo Bruni, centre Juan Cruz Mallia, and full-back Joaquín Tuculet.
Scrumhalf Gonzalo Bertranou, summoned on Saturday after Tomás Cubelli picked up a tournament-ending calf injury against England, could also make his first appearance off the bench. That meant only two-cap hooker Santiago Socino in the squad will not have appeared in this World Cup, as Ledesma stuck with Julián Montoya and former captain Agustín Creevy.
If finishing third is a comedown to a side that believed it could make a fourth consecutive quarter-finals, then the Pumas ought to be motivated by listening to the Americans, who have made third a major goal. The chance to automatically qualify for a Rugby World Cup for the first time is still possible.
"With Argentina's short turnaround, then losing to England and not qualifying, and the disappointment they're facing, they mightn't show up as well as they would have if they were qualifying," Eagles flyhalf AJ MacGinty said. "As much as that might play a factor, we still have to back up our performance."
The Americans were mauled by England but trailed France only 12-9 with 15 minutes to go. They lost 33-9, but they were somewhat pleased, especially with their discipline. They conceded only four penalties against France, and are determined to repeat against the feisty Argentines.
"The pressure is on us to deliver another performance that's even better than the France game," MacGinty said. "If we can do that as a squad and as individuals, then that puts us in a good place for beating Argentina."
The United States has lost eight straight Rugby World Cup games dating to 2011, and MacGinty said they can end the streak on Wednesday.
"A third-place finish is something that's never been done. For us, that's a massive motivational thing," he added.
To try to end eight straight losses to Argentina over 30 years, in their first matchup in 16 years, the United States made five changes to the starting line-up, two of them positional.
Lock Greg Peterson is up from the reserves in the only change to the pack, Paul de Haas is at scrum-half after Cam Dolan started in the losses to England and France, and Paul Lasike is at inside centre so a tall Marcel Brache is on the wing to counter Argentina's kicking game.
Argentina: Joaquin Tuculet, Bautista Delguy, Juan Cruz Mallia, Jeronimo de la Fuente, Santiago Carreras, Nicolas Sanchez, Felipe Ezcurra; Rodrigo Bruni, Juan Manuel Leguizamon, Pablo Matera (captain), Matias Alemanno, Guido Petti, Santiago Medrano, Julian Montoya, Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro. Reserves: Agustin Creevy, Mayco Vivas, Enrique Pieretto Heiland, Marcos Kremer, Tomas Lezana, Gonzalo Martin Bertranou, Benjamin Urdapilleta, Matias Moroni.
United States: Mike Te'o, Blaine Scully (captain), Bryce Campbell, Paul Lasike, Marcel Brache, AJ MacGinty, Ruben de Haas; Cam Dolan, Hanco Germishuys, Tony Lamborn, Greg Peterson, Nate Brakeley, Titi Lamositele, Joe Taufete'e, Eric Fry. Reserves: Dylan Fawsitt, Olive Kilifi, Paul Mullen, Ben Landry, Ben Pinkelman, Nate Augspurger, Will Hooley, Martin Iosefo.