The FIRA-AER European Under 18 Championship kicks off in Venetia, Italy this weekend with both the giants and the developing nations of the region contesting matches over three match days.
Thirty teams are shared across three groups of eight and one group of six, groups A, B and c starting the tournament at the quarter final stages, and in six sides in the lower division contesting a round robin.
"It's an extremely important tournament," said IRB Regional Development Manager for Europe, Michel Arpaillange. "Having 30 teams in Italy makes it one of the biggest international youth team events in the world.
"In Europe we have a focus on helping all the countries and their unions to prepare their young players to play rugby at a higher level, especially the countries that need the most help, giving them the tools to firstly scout the talent at 16 or 17 and then giving them the means to follow through with this tournament and beyond. It helps those 'developing' nations to plot their players' course through to the senior national side."
Match day one fixtures
The first day's play, on Saturday 15 March, features the sides in Groups B and C. In Group B Portugal play Lithuania, Germany play the Czech Republic, Poland face Ukraine and the Netherlands will play against neighbours Belgium, while in Group C Latvia face off against Bulgaria, the Swiss play rivals Austria, Sweden play Israel and Hungary face Denmark.
On Sunday 16th the top sides kick into action. Defending champions France play Spain in their quarter final. Ireland will start as favourites against Russia, England will be fancied against Georgia and Italy will face a tough battle against Romania. Of the Six Nations countries, Wales and Scotland are not represented.
"It's a big problem for the tournament not having those two sides," admitted Arpaillange. "They participate in other competitions at this age group and not having them in Italy is an anomaly. It creates wider problems down the line when it comes to co-ordinating things between the unions, the regional associations and the IRB. We'll be aiming to sort something out with Six Nations representatives during the tournament."
High performance and development
The sides contesting Group D are Luxembourg, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia and Moldova and Arpaillange is excited by the prospect of those players having the chance to rub shoulders with young talent from the likes of France and England.
"The whole principle behind this is to marry high performance with development," he said. "What we want is to be able to partner the teams with players from an almost professional background with the young players from the other groups. So on the second match day the teams in group D will play first and then watch the likes of England, Ireland, France and Italy play at close hand on the same pitch. And we'll do the same with groups B and C, and at some stage during the competition all the sides will get to watch the top sides.
"The same will be done with training. Top teams will be paired up to train with some of the lesser rugby nations. It's very important for the young players from, for example, Bosnia or Croatia to rub shoulders with the French, the English and see how far they still have to go in terms of their development. It's something that's been asked for in the past, it works very well and it's now central to our whole education philosophy at this level."
All games can be followed on the FIRA-AER website fira-aer-rugby.com, which will have match sheets, photos, statistics and reaction interviews.
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