In just over six months time, the north-west of France will become the centre of the Rugby world for a few weeks when it hosts the IRB Junior World Championship 2013.
The cities of Vannes, Nantes and La Roche-sur-Yon will play host to the sixth edition of this premier age-grade tournament, hoping to build on the outstanding success of the 2012 event in South Africa.
This week in Vannes, members of the Fédération Française de Rugby (FFR), along with officials from the Bretagne and Pays de la Loire regions, joined French rugby legend and manager of the Under 20 national side Fabien Pelous for a press conference ahead of next summer's event.
We sat down with the former second row to ask him about the impact the IRB Junior World Championship will have on the young players who strive to be the stars of the future as well as what impact it could have for the region.
"The players are very motivated," said Pelous. "It's true that this competition is followed intently by club recruiters, in fact, careers can be made on one game alone. The Junior World Championship competition is the most difficult (for this age level). Players must keep up with the pace as there is a game every few days ... for those that are selected it will pass very quickly. They will be playing for their national team."
During his playing days Pelous was easily visible on the pitch, not just for his 6ft 6in frame, but also for his natural leadership and athletic skills. Making his Test debut for the national team against Romania in 1995, the Toulouse native went on to play 118 times for his country before hanging up his boots in 2009, after winning three European Cups with Stade Toulousain.
Looking back on it now, how did his experience at age-grade level differ from what the current crop are going through?
"It's all changed completely! Rugby wasn't professional at that stage. It was, first of all, a leisure activity for us. We had to finish our studies and then choose a career. Nowadays, young people can have a career by being a good player. That makes all the difference in mindset. They know what they want. They surprise us with their determination and maturity," he said.
Developing the Game
The IRB Junior World Championship 2013 will be held in the north-west of France, a region not known as a traditional heartland of French Rugby. Despite that, clubs in both the Bretagne and Pays de la Loire regions have seen a massive growth in player numbers in recent years, and organisers are confident the premier age-grade tournament will capture the hearts and minds of players and fans from all over the world. Pelous believes it's a great opportunity for the area.
"Firstly, it's crucial for the development of rugby in France and more particularly in the Bretagne and Pays de la Loire regions. These regions have seen a significant progression over several years, but it needs more support, and the JWC is a really great opportunity," said Pelous.
"Basically, this tournament is another way of promoting rugby in France especially since it takes place in the month of June, when the rugby in France is sometimes less present in the media."
It's also good news for the city of Nantes which hosted several games during Rugby World Cup 2007.
"We delighted to host, along with Vannes and La Roche-sur-Yon, the prestigious Junior World Championship in June 2013," said Mayor of Nantes Patrick Rimbert.
"The city actively supports rugby in Nantes because we believe that access to sport for all young people is a priority for the municipality. (Rugby) is educational and helps social learning and individual development. Nantes is a friendly city, open to differences ... I'm sure this international sporting event will contribute to the attractiveness of our area."
Of course, the long-term goal for players and coaches in the IRB Junior World Championship next year will be the prospect of potentially pulling on a senior jersey at Rugby World Cup 2015 in England. A total of 11 French players have graduated via the IRB Junior World Championship to play for the national team, including talents such as Mathieu Bastareaud, Brice Dulin and Yoann Maestri.
So does Pelous believe there are future stars in his current ranks?
"I really hope so, but as yet that question is not settled. It will depend on how they are physically after the second part of the season. But, of course, I hope all the likely players will get to play in the tournament. I hope so because this event is important for the FFR and French rugby in its entirety. The prospect of having the best players available would be essential in order to do well in this Championship."
The IRB Junior World Championship 2013 will take place in France between June 5-23. The Championship is now firmly established as one of the most eagerly anticipated events on the annual international rugby calendar, showcasing the future stars of rugby and the host nation in a competition that serves up a feast of excitement and highly-competitive matches to a television audience in more than 160 nations.
The 2013 edition will feature three venues with each hosting a pool. Stade Henri Desgrange in La Roche-sur-Yon will host Pool A matches, Stade de la Rabine in Vannes will host Pool B, while Stade Pascal Laporte in Nantes will host Pool C matches.
The semi-finals and IRB Junior World Championship Final will be played in Vannes. The pools have been set on rankings based on results at the previous Championship and hosts France, courtesy of their sixth-place finish in 2012, will face defending champions South Africa, England and IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy 2012 winners USA in Pool A.
JWC 2012 runners-up and four-time winners New Zealand, Ireland, Australia and Fiji are in Pool B, while Wales head Pool C which also includes Argentina, Scotland and Samoa.