IRB Nations Cup
Emerging South Africa return to the now familiar "Arcul de Triumf" Stadium in Bucharest ready to defend their IRB Nations Cup crown against the combined efforts of a strong Italy A team, Romania, Russia, Georgia and newcomers Uruguay.
The 26-strong squad includes three players who last year helped the team to Nation Cup honours - Howard Noble (Vodacom Free State Cheetahs), Hilton Lobberts and Sangoni Mxoli (both Vodacom Blue Bulls) - but the rest are as hungry for success as their predecessors according to Peter Jooste, the chairman of the SA selectors.
"This is the strongest possible team we could pick considering the demands of the Vodacom Incoming Test Series, Springbok Sevens and SA Under 20 duties. The Nations Cup will give many of these players a first taste of international rugby and they will be motivated to make the most of this opportunity," Jooste said.
In addition to South Africa's bottomless pit of rugby talent which should enable the visitors to field a fairly strong side, the trophy holders have the added advantage of being coached by Springbok legend Chester Williams, who succeeds Peter de Villiers - now appointed head coach of the Springboks.
World Cup winner Williams, who spent six months in Bucharest as Coaching Director of Dinamo Bucharest - the champion club and winners of the FRR Cup, is aware of the magnitude of the task ahead for his Emerging South Africa side.
"The Romanian national team has been together for two years and they always qualify for the World Cup. It will be quite tough to come here and expect to beat them - we will have to work hard to achieve a result," Williams said.
Talent shines through in Bucharest
Italy, the other 'A' side in the tournament, have selected an equally strong side featuring no less that 12 full internationals, with the likes of David Bortolussi, Silvio Orlando, Pietro Travagli and Alberto Sgarbi returning to action after their Six Nations 2008 appearances.
The team is coached by the experienced Marzio Zanato, helped by assistant Alessandro Ghini. While Zanato returns for his second tournament, Ghini, a former International scrum half, makes his Nations Cup debut, although both no doubt are aware that the six-nation tournament is a launching pad for both playing talent, as well as for aspiring coaches with two of last year's coaches Peter de Villiers and Santiago Phelan since promoted to the top of the coaching tree in their countries with the Springboks and Pumas respectively.
Russia arrive without their coaching talisman Claude Saurel, who took them to runners up position in the European Nations Cup 2008. Frenchman Saurel, a member of the Beziers Championship winning side of the 1970s, has a considerable coaching experience at international level, having coached Georgia, Morocco and the Tunisian Sevens side to international recognition.
According to Russian sources, he is currently involved with their national Sevens team, trying to win a starting slot in the Rugby World Cup Sevens 2009 in Dubai next March. Saurel is replaced by the VVA Monino (Gagarin Air Academy) coach Nekulay Nekrush, who has an extensive background at international level both in 15s and Sevens.
The Russians feature several talented players who played a significant role in the recently-concluded FIRA-AER campaign including veteran scrum half Victor Motorin and the Kushnarev brothers - Igor the electric fly half cum scrum half and his wing forward brother Kyril. The two Kushnarevs are the sons of former Soviet Union flanker and hooker Victor Kushnarev, one of the main stays of the Soviet team of the 1980s.
This year Uruguay, who missed the Rugby World Cup 2007 finals by a whisker after losing the playoff to Portugal by a single point on aggregate, replace Argentina A - the winners of the first IRB Nations Cup in Lisbon in 2006 and involved this year in the proceedings of the Barclays Churchill Cup in North America.
Coached by Aberico Passadore and his assistant Francisco Berrutti, this Uruguayan side is very much based on the framework of the Under 21 team of 2006 whom the two coached together. There is a lot of talent in this side and Matias Arocena, Martín Espiga, Juan Labat and Juan Martín Llovet are expected to make an impact during the fortnight in Bucharest.
Players missing with club commitments
There are four uncapped players in the 26-strong squad and Passadore has recalled veteran forwards Rodrigo Sanchez and Pablo Lemoine to give the side an edge up front, though some of the leading Uruguayan professionals of the likes of Juan Carlos Bado, Rodrigo Capo and Nicolas Grille failed to turn up for a variety of reasons, from injury to the unwillingness of their clubs to release them.
The hardest-hit by players' absence is European Nations Cup champions Georgia, who have been unable to bring some of their best players who are still involved in the final stages of the various French leagues and championships.
Coach Tim Lane has been unable to bring to Romania some of Georgia's RWC 2007 stars, including Irakli Machkhaneli of Mont-de-Marsan, Malkhaz Urjukashvili of Aurillac , Akvsent Guiorgadze of Castres, David Zirakashvili and Goderdzi Shvelidze of Clermont Ferrand to mention just a few. However, Georgia will pose a formidable challenge, both up front - one of their traditional strengths - but also far wide with the side playing now since the arrival of Lane a more expansive style.
Romania, under their new coach Ellis Meachen, have organised trials for the first time in living memory in an attempt to expand far and wide the selection net, so far confined to the big "fish" of the French professional leagues.
With several of their leading professionals discarded in the aftermath of the World Cup and with some others unable to travel to Bucharest, either because of injury or the unwillingness of their French clubs to release them, Meachen will experiment with a younger, yet nevertheless talented squad.
The return to Bucharest of the prestigious IRB Nations Cup tournament for the second consecutive year confirms not only that the Romanian Federation had done a very good job the previous year, but also that the participating teams were indeed happy in the environment provided by their hosts.
The teams will play under floodlights - a first ever in Romania - in the recently upgraded "Arcul de Triumf" Stadium, whose capacity has now reached 8,000.
IRB Nations Cup schedule
Match Day 1 - Wednesday, 11 June
Italy A v Russia (16:00)
Emerging South Africa v Georgia (18:00)
Uruguay v Romania (20:00)
Match Day 2 - Sunday, 15 June
Georgia v Uruguay (16:00)
Italy A v Emerging South Africa (18:00)
Russia v Romania (20:00)
Match Day 3 - Friday, 20 June
Russia v Uruguay (16:00)
Italy A v Georgia (18:00)
Emerging South Africa v Romania (20:00)