by Frankie Deges, in Rio de Janeiro
The sole mention of Rio de Janeiro is enticing enough. Add to that the fact that a rugby tournament will take place here this weekend and it is the perfect combination for a rugby fan.
It is a matter of no small pride that in four years time this city will host the return of rugby to the Olympic Games, and this weekend marks its debut in welcoming international Sevens.
The two-day event will be played under the Cristo Redentor, one of the many features of this incredible city, in one of the grounds of Flamengo FC.
One of the IRB's six regions, Confederación Sudamericana de Rugby (CONSUR) will be hosting its annual Sevens tournament in one of the most recognised cities in the world. Ten men's and eight women's teams will be competing for the coveted prize that has been exclusively owned by Argentina's men and Brazil's women since competition began.
Whilst both these teams continue to dominate the region, in 2011 wake-up calls in the form of unexpected losses forced them both to ensure they are not surprised again.
Pumas on the prowl
Argentina, the dominant rugby force in the Americas and a nation that had never lost a game against South American opposition since their test debut in 1936, in this same tournament a year ago lost against the home team 7-0. The tournament was played at the same time as the Wellington round of the HSBC Sevens World Series leaving the Puma squad devoid of its top players, but it was still shot in the arm.
"They arrived unprepared and we managed to control them and beat them," said Martín Schusterman, Brazil coach and a former Puma in both Sevens and fifteens. "We finished third in that tournament as the win was on day one and Los Pumas Sevens managed to come back, but it showed that the region is growing."
The former test flank, who is in Brazil thanks to an IRB High Performance grant, is confident his side can reach the semi finals. "We haven't set our goals beyond that but we have a team that has been together for quite some time and learnt a lot when playing in the recent USA Sevens in Las Vegas," he added.
His caretaker captain, Daniel Gregg, who played in last year's win, added with a smile: "We will go out and beat them again this year."
Argentina are not going to be easy. With five players with regular HSBC Sevens World Series experience, they are ready to defend their leading role. Captain Hernán Olivari is here to win: "And win well - we have to stamp our rugby in the region," he said. "The lessons from last year were learnt and we are ready to prove our worth to the region."
Brazil favourites in the women's
The Brazilian girls have totally dominated South American competition since Women's rugby made its international bow in 2004. Last year, in one of the biggest rugby festivals in South America, the Valentín Martínez Tournament in Montevideo, they came unstuck against Uruguay 7-5 but still won overall. The proud Brazilians absorbed the hit, licked their wounds, travelled to Dubai for the first IRB Women's Sevens Challenge Cup and will be in Hong Kong at the end of March.
"In a month in November and December last year, 22 girls played Sevens for Brazil and the experience they all gathered was very important for our development," said Julia Sardá who argued the importance of the loss. "It is important to lose some games; it helps to look at how we are doing things. It is never easy for us; the region is growing and we have to work hard to stay a step ahead."
A veteran of the first ever Brazilian women's Sevens win, Sardá finishes by saying: "The goal is to win, but we are not looking beyond the opening game against Venezuela."
Maiden voyages for Ecuador and Guatemala
This tournament will also see the inclusion of two new teams to South American competition at the IRB level. Ecuador and Guatemala are in Río de Janeiro ready to experience what will certainly be a highlight in their respective rugby histories.
Christian Rosales, captain of the Guatamalan Jaguares, is delighted to be in Brazil: "If someone had told me a year ago I'd be here, I would have laughed.
"Our goal is to gain experience and put the name of our country out in the world of rugby."
A number eight for the San José María Antigua RC, his nation has eight fifteens clubs and play three local Sevens tournaments each season. It is sure to be a baptism of fire, but one he and all his teammates will relish.
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