Fringe senior squad players and emerging youngsters from four nations will be given the chance to put their hands up for RWC 2015 selection in Eastern Europe over the coming fortnight at both the World Rugby Nations Cup and Tbilisi Cup.
The 10th anniversary of the Nations Cup, the ninth to be played in Bucharest since it began in Lisbon in 2006, kicks off on Friday and has added significance given the presence of RWC 2015 participants in the host nation Romania and Africa Cup champions Namibia, alongside Spain and the Argentina Jaguars.
The more recently established Tbilisi Cup, meanwhile, gets underway on Saturday in the Georgian capital that gave the competition its name and features RWC 2015 bound Georgia and Uruguay, with Emerging Ireland and Emerging Italy making up the four-team line-up.
While a number of leading professionals are unavailable to both Romania and Namibia, the Nations Cup offers their respective coaches Lynn Howells and Danie Vermeulen the chance to see some of their main understudies in action.
“It is crucial for us in the World Cup to be able to travel with a squad of 31 quality players and in this respect this tournament is a genuine bonus”, observed Howells.
Namibia arrive well prepared
The view of the veteran Welsh coach is shared by Namibia captain PJ van Lill, who believes that the tournament should become a significant piece in Namibia’s build up for RWC 2015. “This tournament is a big step up for our youngsters after the Vodacom Cup and could make a great difference in developing the strength in depth required for a successful RWC campaign,” he said at Thursday’s press conference.
“Last weekend on our way to Bucharest we stopped over for an Africa Cup match against Tunisia in Nabeul, which we managed to win (22-14) after a very demanding game. The Tunisians are a very robust and competitive side on their home ground and for us, who had only two training sessions together since we gathered in Windhoek at the end of May, this match has been a very useful, albeit testing challenge and dress rehearsal.”
Namibia win v Tunisia in Africa Championship 1A in Nabeul 22-14 pic.twitter.com/KUqLmgAV60— Morgan Buckley (@MorganBuckleyIR) June 6, 2015
For once, the Welwitschias arrived in Europe reasonably well-prepared for the Nations Cup campaign having played seven matches in this season’s Vodacom Cup, which has enabled coach Vermeulen to rotate his main squad of about 30-plus home-based players. He has been aware that the leading Namibian players employed by the big South African franchises and the England-based stars, including Saracens flanker Jacques Burger, will not be available for the Nations Cup tour and prepared the trip accordingly.
However, as van Lill observed, “the squad has developed a great deal of understanding and cohesion, having played together for some time, while trying to integrate a group of very promising youngsters of the likes of 21-year old Janco Venter from Stellenbosh University, Blue Bulls Academy centre Leneve Damens and prop Johannes Coetzee from Brive.”
Oaks have strength in depth
Romania forwards coach Marius Tincu, who captained his country at RWC 2011 in New Zealand, feels that Romania is comparatively more advanced in their RWC preparations than four years ago. “We’ve had longer to prepare having qualified earlier this time around. We are better organised and roughly know who the main candidates for selection are, what are they doing and where are they with their preparation etc. It is all about organisation and we have made a great deal of progress,” he said.
Howells observed that there is a sense of calm and composure in the build-up to the tournament and that the number of contenders for places has grown considerably compared to the previous tournament. “In addition to the Romanian-born players, who have reached the required standard, we have several players who have qualified through residency and this is the time they will start playing for Romania. On Tuesday I watched Romania under-23s play against a very strong England Counties team, and although the boys lost 28-20, I was very pleased with the performances of several players, who will definitely be considered for the RWC squad,” he said.
"Nowadays there is genuine competition for places and we expect players not just to aim to wear the Romanian shirt, but to do well in the Romanian shirt"
Defence coach Neil Kelly added: “Three years ago the squad picked itself and our objective was to create more competition for places. Nowadays there is genuine competition for places and we expect players not just to aim to wear the Romanian shirt, but to do well in the Romanian shirt.”
Contepomi takes the reins
The Spanish team, coached by former hooker and captain Santiago Santos Munoz, finished third in European Nations Cup Division 1A behind Georgia and Romania and were duly rewarded with a place in the Nations Cup line-up, having made their debut in the last year’s Tbilisi Cup. Their opening match against Romania is the 33rd of the series between the two countries which commenced in 1958, and Santos and his veteran captain Jaime Nava are hoping to build up on the brave performance of Los Leones in the European Nations Cup match in February in Cluj-Napoca, when Romania won 29-8 after a bruising battle.
The Jaguars, at their seventh Nations Cup, won the first tournament in 2006 under the guise of Argentina A, with Patricio Noriega as the then head coach. With Daniel Hourcade, who coached the Jaguars for several seasons, now in charge of Los Pumas, some of the young Argentine players hope to improve their RWC selection chances by impressing their new coach, former Pumas fly-half and captain Felipe Contepomi, at his first ever tournament in charge of a national team.
Fixtures (all times are local):
Friday 12 June: Argentina Jaguars v Namibia, 17:00, Romania v Spain, 20:00
Wednesday 17 June: Argentina Jaguars v Spain 17:00, Romania v Namibia, 20:00
Sunday 21 June: Namibia v Spain 17:00, Romania v Argentina Jaguars, 20:00
Squad places and pride at stake in Tbilisi Cup
Now in its third year, the Tbilisi Cup serves as perfect preparation for Georgia and Uruguay as they start their Rugby World Cup preparations with less than 100 days to go until the start of the year's biggest sporting event.
Georgia head coach Milton Haig, who will lead his side into battle against New Zealand, Argentina, Tonga and Namibia in Pool C at RWC 2015 later this year, is looking forward to blooding some new talent with the majority of his French-based stars rested.
"This is great preparation for us and allows us to add another level of player to the group," he said. "We have new guys who will be making their debuts in this tournament and that's because we have looked at positional strengths and have identified that in certain positions where we are lighter, we want to ensure players are ready to step in if required later in the year.
“At the end of the competition the players get a week off and then it is into Rugby World Cup camp, so this is the start of a very busy three months."
Uruguay coach Pablo Lemoine knows this tournament will serve as a good indicator ahead of Rugby World Cup squad selection. "This competition comes at a good time for us as we get closer to making a decision on the Rugby World Cup squad,” he said. “We have brought players here to develop and improve and to see if they have the potential to play at the World Cup. We have three really tough games here, starting with Georgia on Saturday. It will be very physical and give us a really good idea of where we are leading into the World Cup."
Emerging Italy and Emerging Ireland meet in the 17:00 kick-off on Saturday with a number of players no doubt looking to put their hands up for selection.
Emerging Italy head coach Umberto Casellato is more focused on developing a squad capable of competing at RWC 2019 in Japan. “This is our second time in Tbilisi and the squad are looking forward to the tournament,” he said.
“We have brought a young squad made up of players playing in the domestic league in Italy. The tournament will act as a development tool for these young players and allow them a chance to grow into international rugby with an eye on the 2019 Rugby World Cup.”
Emerging Ireland coach Allen Clarke, meanwhile, alluded to the fact that Rugby World Cup training squad places are still available and that this tournament gives players on the fringe of the senior squad a chance to stake their claim.
"The tournament has been very profitable in determining the future of young men into the professional ranks and indeed the senior team,” he said. “We have been together for a week and the squad has gelled together pretty well.
"Our purpose is two-fold; in the short term there are a number of players who will be putting their hands up for the World Cup squad, a number of positions have been kept open, with a number of players looking to break into that squad. In the longer term we are looking at the development of all the players against good opposition."
Fixtures (all times are local):
Saturday 13 June: Emerging Italy v Emerging Ireland 17:00, Georgia v Uruguay 19:00
Wednesday 17 June: Uruguay v Emerging Ireland 17:00, Georgia v Emerging Italy 19:00
Sunday 21 June: Uruguay v Emerging Italy 17:00, Georgia v Emerging Ireland 19:00
Main photo: Nations Cup 2015 Captain's photocall (L-R): Gonzola Bertranou (Argentina Jaguars), Jaime Nava (Spain), Mihai Macovei (Romania), PJ van Lill (Namibia) line up with the World Rugby Nations Cup trophy.