Venezuela gears up for RWC 2015 qualifiers
It’s a long and winding road to Rugby World Cup 2015. One of the tournament’s many beauties is the qualifying race, which spans the globe and gives the Game’s emerging nations a chance to mix it with the biggest and best.
On Sunday, qualifying begins in South America as the Confederación Sudamericana de Rugby (CONSUR) B competition gets underway in Valencia, Venezuela. The hosts will go toe-to-toe with Peru, Colombia and favourites Paraguay for the chance to face Bermuda, winners of the Caribbean Championship, in the next round.
Venezuela’s rugby journey began some 60 years ago with the first matches played in the country, and while they had to wait until 1998 for a first Test match – against Trinidad and Tobago – they have been fixtures of South American qualifying campaigns for the last three Rugby World Cups.
Rugby does battle with baseball, football and basketball for Venezuelan sports fans’ affections and has its roots in the country’s university system. Baseball also dominates the scene in Valencia, with Seattle Mariners pitcher Félix Hernández – a Major League Baseball All-Star and Cy Young winner – one of its most famous sporting sons.
In recent years rugby has gained further traction in the country due to its presence in Proyecto Alcatraz, an initiative championed by Alberto Vollmer, a rugby fan and chief of the Ron Santa Teresa rum company. Venezuela struggles against social divisions and a gang culture, and Proyecto Alcatraz was designed to institute work programmes for offenders as well as teach rugby and its values – “discipline, loyalty, bravery and respect”.
The Venezuelan national team will have a different sort of challenge on their hands in the coming weeks. Their first match is against Colombia on Sunday, just after Paraguay have tackled Peru. The winners of each match with face the losers of the other on Wednesday, with the final day next Saturday comprising a third place play-off and final.
La Vinotinto have been training with former Argentina international Damian Rotondo in Córdoba and have reason for optimism after finishing unbeaten in last year’s South American B Championship, beating Peru, Colombia and Costa Rica.
Paraguay, by sharp contrast, have a point to prove after a poor showing in the top tier last year. They shipped 224 points across matches against Chile, Uruguay and Brazil, the latter lie in wait for the winners of the CONSUR B-Bermuda match. Crucially, though, Los Yacarés have posted heavy victories in every past meeting with Venezuela, Colombia and Peru – making them still the biggest fish in this particular pond.
Their coach – former Argentina Sevens international Pedro Baraldi – has selected a squad from the fertile club game in Paraguay’s capital, Asunción. Their preparation has not been ideal, but he insists that every effort has been made to hit the ground running in Valencia.
“We started preparations two months ago, but it was only two weeks ago that we had all of the squad available,” he said. “The players have been training and playing for their clubs in our domestic tournament. Despite this, the Paraguayan Union have put all their efforts into the players having the best preparation possible, in terms of gym sessions, nutrition, physios and medics.
Growing the Game
“We also played two warm-up matches with regional teams, which allowed us to get a look at all the players, but the opposition was not strong enough for them to reach their full level.”
Rugby’s profile has been boosted by Argentina’s recent entry into The Rugby Championship, while the South American Championship also offers regular international competition for teams, and Baraldi hopes that there will soon be further work to build the sport’s profile on an everyday basis in Paraguay and beyond – beginning with those in need of a helping hand.
“Governments must work closely together with the national unions to promote rugby in deprived areas and also include it in schools,” he said. “Rugby should also become a subject for aspiring sports teachers, or for those at university, so there are rugby coaches working in the school system.”
The face of rugby in South America is set to alter dramatically in the coming years, with greater funding, exposure to top-class coaching and regular competition. Paraguay are the team to beat this weekend but players from Venezuela, Colombia and Peru will be out to prove that they can climb the international ladder.
The Rugby World Cup loves an underdog story – will a new chapter be written this weekend?