The ninth edition of the IRB Nations Cup gets underway on Friday, with host nation Romania, Russia, Uruguay and Emerging Ireland competing for the trophy.
By Chris Thau in Bucharest
With one of the four participating teams at the IRB Nations Cup already qualified for Rugby World Cup 2015 and two others in with a shout of making it to England, results at this year’s tournament in Bucharest will take on added significance.
That will certainly be the case for Russia and Uruguay, who are scheduled to meet each other in the final round of the Nations Cup on 22 June, and are potential rivals for the final qualifying place at RWC 2015.
Both have made it through to the Repechage semi-finals - essentially the last-chance saloon for the four also-rans from the Rugby World Cup qualifying regions, with Russia due to play the runner-up from the Africa Nations Cup, contested in Madagascar from 28 June - 6 July, while Uruguay have a date with Hong Kong who finished second to Japan in the Asia Region.
Change at the top for Russia
“We’re looking forward to three tough matches to enable us to reach the hugely important summer campaign in the World Cup Repechage in top form,” said Uruguay’s captain Nicolas Klappenbach.
Coached by their former international prop Pablo Lemoine, Uruguay, an IRB Nations Cup participant in 2008, 2009 and 2012 arrive in Bucharest having just competed in the CONSUR Cup, where they finished runner-up to Argentina.
Frenchman Raphael Saint-Andre will take charge of Russia for the first time in a competitive fixture when the Bears play Emerging Ireland in this year’s Nations Cup curtain-raiser. Saint-Andre, the brother of France coach Philippe, takes over from Kingsley Jones who decided to stand down from the role following the RWC 2015 European qualifier play-off win over Germany.
Half backs key for Irish
For Emerging Ireland the focus will be on player development and performance, as it was when they competed strongly at last year’s Tbilisi Cup, the Georgia-based tournament that runs parallel to the IRB Nations Cup and involves Georgia, Argentina Jaguars, Emerging Italy and Spain.
The Irish side is coached by Connacht assistant coach Daniel McFarland, a former Connacht prop, who played for Richmond, Stade Francais and made over 100 appearances for his province. The Irish captain, Munster’s Mike McCarthy dropped out injured just before the tour started and was replaced by teammate Billy Holland, with the captaincy going to Leinster’s Dominic Ryan.
Emerging Ireland boasts a well-balanced side, with a strong and aggressive pack, and a speedy back division run by the international duo Paul Marshall, the Ulster scrum half, and Ian Keatley, the Munster fly half, two of the five capped players in the squad.
Hat-trick seeking hosts hit by injuries
Meanwhile, hosts Romania will be looking to crown their qualification for the Rugby World Cup as Europe 2 with a hat-trick of Nations Cup titles. But Oaks captain Mihai Macovei says past performances will count for nothing once they begin their defence of the trophy against Uruguay on Friday.
“For a variety of reasons we start with a very young team, with many of the new boys trying to convince the coaches that they deserve a place in the squad with next year's World Cup in mind, he said.
“It is true that we are the holders of the IRB Nations Cup trophy, but that will end when the tournament starts on Friday and we will have to prove ourselves all over again. The first match against Uruguay is going to be very difficult and we expect a very strong challenge on Friday."
Romania are missing about 10 players either through injury or because they are being rested after an arduous club season in France. Catalin Fercu, Madalin Lemnaru, Manole Dorin, Valentin Calafeteanu, Stefan Ciuntu, the Ursache brothers - Valentin and Andrei, Alin Coste and Ovidiu Tonita will definitely miss the tournament, with veterans such as Paulica Ion, Mihaita Lazar and Stelian Burcea given a break.
“This is a good opportunity for the youngsters to show what they are made of, and also it is a good opportunity for us to do a serious inventory before the World Cup. We are in a very tough World Cup pool, which includes France, Ireland and Italy and we need to get prepared for that level,” observed backs coach Eugen Apjok.
Nations Cup set to deliver
Now well-established as the premier summer tournament for Tier 2 Nations, the IRB Nations Cup is a key element in the IRB’s strategic plan to increase the competitiveness of the Game on a global basis.
Tournament organisers are confident that public interest will not be undermined by the start of Football World Cup 24 hours earlier. “It will be a tremendous tournament, I promise you”, said Lucian Lorin, the FRR Head of Communications and Marketing. “Rugby is not competing with soccer for its public. The tournament has established itself among the rugby family and I am sure the ninth IRB Nations Cup will be a success.”