This weekend sees the return of international rugby in South America, a continent hit hard by the pandemic in 2020. The Sudamericano 4 Naciones will see a Uruguay XV, along with teams from Brazil, Chile and Argentina face off at the Estadio Charrúa in Montevideo over three rounds, marking the first international tournament to be played in the region since the start of the global lockdown.
Selecting players based at home means that the four team coaches are looking towards Rugby World Cup 2023, using this tournament as a development tool in a year largely devoid of rugby. The tournament will be available worldwide for free via Sudamérica Rugby’s recently launched app, ensuring a worldwide audience can enjoy international rugby.
With player welfare a top priority, Uruguay, which of the four has endured the least impact from the pandemic, will be hosting the tournament. Sudamérica Rugby has been working closely with different government departments for the past six months to ensure the tournament provides a safe environment, with players living and training in bubbles.
Before arriving in Montevideo, the three visiting teams and travelling referees all had to undergo tests at home and on arrival. The four teams, referees, and tournament officials will also be tested three days before kick-off, and on-site checks will be done for captain’s runs and on match-days.
Each team, including the Uruguay XV, are living in bubbles and only allowed to leave their hotel for training sessions and matches.
Early return for Uruguay
Rugby in Uruguay restarted exactly two months ago, a luxury the other teams have not had, which may give the Uruguay XV an advantage when it comes to match-fitness.
Chile only played a trial game two weeks ago, right before departure, whilst the Argentina XV moved to Uruguay almost a month before the start of the tournament in order to prepare in a safer environment. The Brazil XV has trained as a squad at home, but played no games since March.
Under the stewardship of Esteban Meneses and new captain Andrés Vilaseca, the Uruguay XV have much to prove after a successful campaign in Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan.
Twelve players return from that tournament, including the captain, South America’s most capped player, Diego Magno, and Nicolás Freitas and Rodrigo Silva.
Meneses has gone for a blend of experience and youth in a tournament squad of 30 players, with winger Baltazar Amaya and second-row Juanjuan Garese amongst a handful of players that were involved in last year’s World Rugby U20 Trophy, and eight players that were in line to play in Spain for this year’s edition.
“Our road started almost as soon as Japan 2019 finished; we knew as a team we could not afford to wait and had to work straight away,” Meneses says.
“Having a squad so young is part of that road to France 2023. They are part of our high performance programme and it is good for them to use the scarce international activity and also learn from older players.”
A new Brazil
Brazil have also invested in youth. Adrio Melo, Felipe Gonçalves, Gabriel Oliveira, Guilherme Dias, Henrique Ferreira, Leonardo Souza, Lucas Spago and Rafael Teixeira all played in last year’s World Rugby U20 Trophy at home in Sao José dos Campos. The experience gained there will come in handy when they take the field with veterans Moisés Duque, who first played for his country in 2006, New Zealand-born Josh Reeves and Wilton Rebolo.
“We had a successful team over five seasons, beating USA, Canada, Chile, Belgium, Portugal and winning a Sudamericano, but that was with a base of players that seldom changed,” says head coach Fernando Portugal.
“Our fly-half Josh played in every game during that period. Now we need to develop new players who can learn and push the rest.”
Portugal, an international full-back between 1999 and 2015, says the team are using the tournament as a stepping stone to future success. “We have some very exciting young players. We are building a new Brazil, looking ahead of the qualifying process to RWC 2023.”
Ignacio Fernández Lobbe has been involved with Argentina XV, the country’s development team, for almost five years. The former Puma has a wealth of experience to draw from, including three Rugby World Cups.
“What I always look for in my teams is that they are a strong unit that can come through in tough moments; since arriving in Uruguay we’ve been looking to create that team culture,” he says.
With Argentina hit hard by the pandemic, his team moved to Uruguay a month ago to prepare in a healthier, safer, environment. Their success even led his former team-mate, Mario Ledesma, to take Los Pumas to Montevideo en-route to Australia, where they are preparing for The Rugby Championship.
“We are privileged to be able to be thinking of rugby and preparing for a tournament given what is happening in the world,” says Fernández Lobbe. “We now need to make sure that we can play a dynamic game.”
A real rugby mind is in charge of Chile. Pablo Lemoine knows what it means to take a team to a Rugby World Cup; he went to two as a prop for Uruguay and coached Los Teros to Rugby World Cup 2015.
As with every other country involved, preparation has not been ideal. Lemoine left Chile in March and only recently regrouped with the team on arrival in his home town of Montevideo.
Nonetheless, his team is ready for action. Fly-half Santiago Videla acknowledges that “recent months were not ideal in terms of preparation, yet in Chile we managed it and I can say we were privileged in being one of the few sports that were allowed back to training sometime ago.”
Lack of competition might be an issue as their only game was a trial between two Chilean XVs. But Videla and his team are “very motivated. We are desperate to start playing.”