Uruguay and Argentina share a frontier, speak the same language and are both passionate about rugby. There are many similarities between the nations, separated by a two-and-a-half hour ferry ride across the River Plate. But not so when it comes to the size of the rugby-playing population.
In Uruguay 5,000 of its 3.3 million inhabitants play the game, while, on the other side of the border, there are some 110,000 players in a population in excess of 45 million.
Nevertheless, there is a spirit of collaboration between Argentina, a Tier One nation, and Tier 2 Uruguay, as Unión de Rugby del Uruguay vice-president Sebastián Piñeyrúa explains: “We have been working very well with the Argentine Rugby Union and this year alone we’ve held four camps with their national U19, U20 and Sevens teams and also with their Jaguars.”
The Uruguayans are currently playing in their second IRB Americas Rugby Championship and earlier this year participated in the Tbilisi Cup, a new development tournament designed to give Tier 2 nation players even more exposure to international standard competition. The Uruguay men’s team also played in the Rugby World Cup Sevens and their U20s have already booked their flights to Hong Kong for next year’s IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy.
And, in less than six months, Los Teros will tackle the USA Eagles over two legs (March 23 & 29, 2014) for direct entry to Rugby World Cup 2015 as ‘Americas 2’. “It's very important to qualify as it would put us on the right track and confirm that what we have been doing is correct,” explains former captain Pablo Lemoine, who now coaches Uruguay and runs the High Performance programmes set up from U16 to seniors.
“Qualifying will mean a world of difference in terms of credibility, funding and the players being rewarded for the huge effort they are putting in,” he concludes.
In January 2013, the URU took possession of the Charrúa Stadium, a soccer ground in the leafy suburbs of Montevideo. Uruguayan rugby had finally found its home. Already 200 players – from U16 and including the Sevens and Women’s squads – are taking advantage of the facilities and coaching on offer.
A former prop in RWC 1999 and 2003, Lemoine returned to his country in 2010 after more than a decade in Europe i and now spearheads the new high performance era.
“We have to be more ambitious and be a good Tier 2 nation. The International Rugby Board trusts our plans, gives us sufficient competition and we have to thank them for that,” he says.
Lemoine was extremely demanding as a player, coming back from Europe expecting the best of preparation for his fellow Teros. “Nowadays, our players have everything they need,” says Piñeyrúa, himself a former Test coach. “Everything is conducive to a good development pathway. By coming to tournaments such as the Americas Rugby Championship we can see some of our players in action at a higher level than our club competition. We are hoping to promote as many players as we can from this team.”
Bordering Argentina has given Uruguay many opportunities, but the fact is that CONSUR – the South American Rugby Confederation – is multi-layered and there are many different development and playing standards among its member unions.
Clearly leading the way is Argentina, a country that fought very hard to be a Tier One nation and has been extremely well supported by the IRB in recent years. With history on their side, they are now working towards the future.
“We have five national High Performances Centres that have been working since 2009, and in total some 300 players, including age grade players and women, are involved,” says Francisco Rubio, who heads the HP programme. “In the next few months, nine new centres will be opened around the country, with some joint-ventures between the provincial and the national union.”
Argentina has not had a successful season on the rugby field, finishing bottom of the Rugby Championship without a win to their name. But they have been successful in promoting young players. Flanker Pablo Matera, who played in his second IRB Junior World Championship in June, was promoted to the Pumas ranks and was arguably the side’s most consistent performer in the Rugby Championship.
“We knew all about him because we’d been involved in his development for the past two years, so we were confident that he was ready,” adds Rubio. “There are a few others waiting to take centre stage.”
Daniel Hourcade has been coaching Argentina Jaguars and the Pampas XV since 2010 and has just led a youthful Jaguars side to the IRB Americas Rugby Championship title. “It is great to work with these players in a team environment at a tournament; it helps you to find out who is capable of taking it onto the next level,” he says.
Winning the ARC has been important, but the goal is, in his words, “to produce players capable of playing for Argentina.”
Uruguay will play USA Select and Canada A face Argentina Jaguars in the third and last round of the Americas Rugby Championship 2013 on Sunday. While the Jaguars have already secured the trophy, the silver medal is still up for grabs so a great finish to this year’s tournament is in prospect at the Westhills Stadium in Langford, British Columbia.