KUMAGAYA, Japan — Qualifying for the 2023 Rugby World Cup wasn’t enough to pump up Argentina.
What did get the juices running, though, was the last game in a Pumas jersey for flanker Juan Manuel Leguizamon.
So the Pumas played the United States on Wednesday for their only survivor from the 2007 semifinal team, and gave him a send-off any retiring rugby player would have enjoyed.
Argentina sliced and diced the United States 47-17 in rugby-mad Kumagaya, completing its World Cup campaign and reaffirming its supremacy in the Americas.
The first team to finish its pool matches, the Pumas fell short of a fourth consecutive quarterfinal berth after losses to France and England, but by securing third in Pool A will head home gifting the 2023 Rugby World Cup squad automatic qualification.
“Qualifying for France wasn’t in our heads today,” coach Mario Ledesma said. “We wanted to play better, we wanted to do on the field what we practiced, and to do it for him.”
“Him” was Leguizamon, who was given his first appearance in this, his fourth World Cup, and was celebrated afterward by being lifted on to the shoulders of teammates in front of his wife and three kids.
“Fifteen years of wearing this jersey is very special, and it is hard to say goodbye,” Leguizamon said. “I had the chance to wear my Argentina jersey one more time, and we had a good game.”
It was another Puma making his first appearance this year, let alone in the tournament, who starred: Juan Cruz Mallia.
Mallia, 13 years younger than Leguizamon at 23, was brilliant in the center of a slick backline which cut the United States to ribbons. He scored two tries and was a big factor in three more of their seven tries in total.
“I enjoyed it a lot,” said Mallia, who can play 10 to 15 and prefers the wing.
Argentina hadn’t met the United States in 16 years, when the Pumas won 42-8 in Buenos Aires, and they eclipsed that record with some silky play allied to some poor American defense. Both packs canceled each other out, but the Pumas backs were in another class.
The stage was perfect for them: Sunny, warm conditions in a stadium filled out with cheering, flag-waving kids from local schools. Both teams seemed to agree the day was too good to waste and decided to entertain the baked crowd of more than 24,000. Turnovers were simply resets to run the ball at each other over and over. It made for helter-skelter fun.
Mallia was the first to show he was a threat and expose the Americans’ flimsy backline defense. His second clean break through the middle sent flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez sliding into the right corner.
Sanchez, the team’s test points record-holder restored as a starter after a two-game demotion, repaid with a chip to the U.S. tryline that bounced kindly for fullback Joaquin Tuculet, making his first appearance in the tournament.
Tuculet bagged a pair, shrugging off a neck-high tackle out wide after the forwards couldn’t pound the ball in.
Down 19-0 closing on halftime, the Americans remained upbeat and an AJ MacGinty grubber was scooped up by right wing and captain Blaine Scully to score.
The Eagles were right to think they had a foothold in the match, but the Pumas destroyed their hopes in a breathtaking 16 minutes after halftime.
Wing Bautista Delguy amazed first. He ran back to collect a dropped pass meters out from his line, dashed behind the tryline then straightened up between the posts and shot clear. He slipped a fourth tackle before running out of energy and kicking ahead to set up a lineout. From that, Mallia scored his first try, and four minutes later a second try breaking from a quick lineout by fellow midfielder Jeronimo de la Fuente.
Mallia gave left wing Santiago Carreras an overlap, and de la Fuente was inside him to score by the posts for 40-5.
“They’re ruthless,” Scully said. The captain got a second try, and teammate Paul Lasike also barged over.
But in between, Argentina replacement scrumhalf Gonzalo Bertranou, who arrived only this week after a tournament-ending injury to Tomas Cubelli last Saturday against England, dotted down from a break by the star of the match, Mallia.
“Mallia had an incredible match,” teammate Matias Moroni said. “He has a bright future. I hope he doesn’t play 13 as I like to play there.”