When Uruguay emerged victorious from the Repechage to claim the 20th and final place at Rugby World Cup 2015 they brought the curtain came down on a qualifying process which had involved 83 nations and 203 matches. The road to England 2015 began in Mexico City on 24 March, 2012 when the hosts faced Jamaica and reached its conclusion 932 days later in the Uruguayan capital Montevideo.
Uruguay had fallen at this final hurdle for both the 2007 and 2011 tournaments and were desperate to avoid a hat-trick of heartbreaks. Uruguay returned home from Krasnoyarsk after a 22-21 defeat by Russia and were trailing by nine on aggregate until, inspired by their vocal supporters, they scored three tries in 18 second-half minutes through Joaquín Prada, Alejo Corral and Agustín Ormaechea to swing the qualifier in their favour. Russia battled bravely to the end, but it was the Uruguayan players and fans left celebrating a 36-27 win come the final whistle at the Estadio Charrúa.
“We qualified for the Rugby World Cup because we wanted it more, we deserve it for all the hard work we put in the last four years and because on the day we managed to understand what was required to win,” insisted Uruguay coach Pablo Lemoine, whose side join Australia, hosts England, Wales and Fiji in Pool A at RWC 2015. “This is a huge day in our rugby history and one that we must enjoy knowing that from now on the hard work will be with a clear goal, to enjoy the World Cup.”
Uruguay had reached the Repechage final after a strong finish saw them to a 28-3 victory over Hong Kong in Montevideo at the beginning of August. Russia’s margin of victory was smaller at 23-15, although only after a great solo try by Tafadzwa Chitokwindo at the death in Krasnoyarsk.
Namibia achieved their goal of qualifying for a fifth successive Rugby World Cup by winning the Africa Cup Division 1A in early July, but they certainly did it the hard way after losing their opening match 29-22 to Kenya in Madagascar. That defeat put Namibia in the last chance saloon and meant they had to beat Zimbabwe and their hosts to keep alive their dream of qualification. Namibia achieved the first part, albeit only after scoring 14 unanswered second-half points for a 24-20 victory, but Kenya were in the driving seat with two wins from two after beating Madagascar 34-0.
It was still mathematically possible for Zimbabwe and Namibia to secure the coveted Africa 1 spot, although the latter would need to beat Madagascar with a bonus point and hope Zimbabwe beat Kenya with neither side getting a bonus point. In that scenario all three teams would finish level on 10 points and it would come down to point differential to determine who would qualify directly, enter the Repechage or miss out completely. The first part went according to Namibia’s hopes with Zimbabwe winning 28-10, which meant that the Welwitschias had to beat Madagascar by 53 points or more if they were to return home with their mission accomplished. With Kenya and Zimbabwe looking on from the stands in Antananarivo,
Namibia had reached that target by half-time with a 63-10 advantage. Playing with ambition, width and pace, Namibia had stretched that to 89-10 by the final whistle to confirm their place alongside defending champions New Zealand, Argentina, Tonga and Georgia in Pool C at England 2015. Zimbabwe’s hopes of qualifying for a first Rugby World Cup since 1991 were also still alive after they finished second to enter the Repechage and end Kenya’s dream of a first ever RWC appearance.
Canada had already claimed the Americas 1 berth in August 2013 with victory over their neighbours USA, which left the Eagles needing to beat Uruguay over two legs to qualify as Americas 2 and join South Africa, Samoa, Scotland and the then unknown Asia 1 qualifier in Pool B.
The first leg in Montevideo ended in stalemate after a try by Ormaechea – whose father Diego captained and coached Uruguay on the Rugby World Cup stage – seven minutes from time earned Los Teros a deserved 27-27 draw. It could have been even better with a first win over their opponents since 2002 had Felipe Berchesi’s conversion attempt not drifted agonisingly wide.
A week later the teams met again at the Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Atlanta and an upset seemed on the cards as Uruguay led 13-3 at half-time. The Eagles regrouped and scored 29 unanswered points – including tries from brothers Andrew and Shalom Suniula – to emerge victorious, 59-40 on aggregate.
Japan were overwhelming favourites to take the Asia 1 place alongside South Africa, Samoa, Scotland and USA in Pool B at England 2015, the RWC 2019 hosts having won all 24 of their previous Asian 5 Nations matches with a bonus point. The battle to finish as runners-up and earn a place in the Repechage was, though, expected to be fiercely contested by Hong Kong and Korea.
Japan kicked off their campaign against a Philippines side that had conceded 16 tries against Hong Kong the previous weekend and duly ran out 99-10 winners over their hosts. A week later the Brave Blossoms, with coach Eddie Jones back at the helm having recovered from the stroke he suffered the previous October, posted their third highest score in history in beating Sri Lanka 132-10 in Nagoya.
That same weekend Hong Kong made the most of home advantage to beat Korea 39-6, scoring five tries in a performance built around a strong defensive effort to secure at least a place in the Repechage, more if they could stun Japan a fortnight later.
Japan warmed up for that title decider with a 62-5 victory in Korea and then ensured that the final act of the National Stadium – the centrepiece of 1964 Olympic Games which is being demolished to make way for a modern stadium for RWC 2019 and the 2020 Olympics – was a positive one with a 49-8 defeat of Hong Kong. The visitors had made life difficult for Japan, but try bursts in the final 10 minutes of each half ensured the Brave Blossoms maintained their ever-present record at a Rugby World Cup, leaving Hong Kong with the challenge of facing Uruguay in the Repechage.
Thirty-one nations were involved in the European qualification process, making it the biggest of the five regions, but it was no surprise when Georgia and Romania emerged as the two direct qualifiers for England 2015.
The two sides had gone through the first phase of the European Nations Cup 2014 unbeaten – overcoming Belgium, Portugal, Russia and Spain and drawing their encounter in Bucharest – and began 2014 in the same vein to set up a winner takes all finale in Tbilisi on 15 March. That match would not only determine the ENC 2014 champions but also who would earn the right to face defending champions New Zealand at RWC 2015.
Georgia and Romania had already confirmed their places at the showpiece event after overcoming Russia and Spain respectively three weeks earlier, but both were desperate to qualify as Europe 1 and join the All Blacks, Argentina, Tonga and the African qualifier in Pool C.
With a crowd approaching 30,000 at the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium, Georgia emerged the 22-9 victors thanks to a titanic performance from their pack and the reliable boot of Merab Kvirikashvili to earn their date with New Zealand at the Millennium Stadium on 2 October, 2015. “It’s going to be huge for the Georgian team to play against the world champions and a team with the history and quality of New Zealand,” admitted captain Irakli Machkaneli. “It will be wonderful for the development of rugby in Georgia.”
Romania will have their own share of big occasions to look forward to as they will open their campaign against France at the Olympic Stadium and then face Ireland, Italy and Canada in Pool D.
Russia finished third in Division 1A to keep alive their own hopes of a second successive appearance, although they would have to beat Germany if they were to take Europe’s place in the Repechage. They duly won 31-20 in Hamburg in late May, but not without an almighty scare with late tries by Yury Kushnarev and Evgeny Matveev sparing Russia’s blushes and setting up a meeting with the Africa Cup runners-up in August.
It was no surprise that Fiji claimed the Oceania 1 berth at RWC 2015 – and the honour of facing hosts England in the first match at Twickenham on 18 September – after a 108-6 victory over the Cook Islands on 28 June in Lautoka.
The Flying Fijians, in their one and only match in the qualification process, did trail 6-5 as the half hour mark approached at Churchill Park but four tries in 10 minutes turned that into a 29-6 advantage for the home side. Twelve more tries followed after the break with Nemani Nadolo completing his hat-trick and Metuisela Talebula, Adriu Delai, Nikola Matawalu and Timosi Nagusa finishing the match with two apiece.
The emphatic victory meant Fiji took their place alongside England, two-time winners Australia, Wales and the then unknown Repechage winner in Pool A at RWC 2015 with matches to look forward to at Twickenham, the Millennium Stadium and Stadium MK.