By Chris Thau
As the tropical rainstorm engulfed the playing fields of the National Rugby Stadium “Arcul de Triumf” in Bucharest - much to the delight of the local groundsman - the pre-tournament press conference officially kicked off the sixth annual IRB Nations Cup, which begins with three matches on Friday 10 June.
The event, held at the headquarters of the Romanian Rugby Federation, was attended by the captains of the six participating teams - hosts Romania, holders Namibia as well as Georgia, Portugal, the Argentina Jaguars and the South African Kings - and revealed the extent to which Rugby World Cup 2011 is on the minds of all involved.
Namibia have arrived with another talented side and their captain, experienced flanker Jacques Nieuwenhuis, is adamant they will be going all out to repeat last year’s surprise win if they can, while also keeping an eye on the bigger picture.
“We are looking forward to three tough matches that should get us in the right frame of mind for New Zealand," said Nieuwenhuis. "We are here to play every match and try to win it, literally fighting well above our weight. However, this is a build-up tournament and to be honest I am prepared to trade a repeat of last year’s win in Bucharest for a good performance in the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand."
Namibia's first match comes against the hosts Romania in a repeat of last year’s opener. According to the skipper, the added intensity of lining up against the home favourites has concentrated the minds of the team beautifully.
“Though we are the holders of the trophy, we do not regard ourselves as favourites," observed Nieuwenhuis, a regular with the French professional club Aurillac. "I spoke about it with Romeo Gontineac, the Romanian coach, who also played for Aurillac, and we agreed to have a chat after the match,” he said.
Nieuwenhuis' Romania counterpart, Perpignan hooker Marius Tincu, agrees wholeheartedly: “We aim to do well and regard the match against Namibia as the first test in our build-up for New Zealand.
"I have not been back to Romania since our November match in the qualifiers of the World Cup and I am delighted to be back home and leading a motivated team, keen to build up the team spirit and to do well.
"Furthermore, we are aware of the significance of this tournament for the rugby supporters in Romania and urge them to come to support not our team, but all other participants in what is going to be a great rugby festival.”
Zedginidze: "One last chance"
In the second match of the day Georgia, captained by seasoned second row Ilia Zedginidze, take on the South Africa Kings, making their first outing in Europe.
Zedginidze, who captained Georgia to both the 2003 and 2007 Rugby World Cups, is one of several veterans invited by coach Richie Dixon to nail down a place for the remainder of the year.
“I have been in Bucharest many times before but this tournament is special because for many of us it is the last chance to stake a claim for a place in the team for New Zealand,” he said.
The captain of the Kings, meanwhile, is 27-year-old full back and former Sevens World Series champion, Mzwandile Stick. While much of his side has no real chance of making the Springbok squad bound for New Zealand, he is excited by the prospect of the Kings performing on this stage for the first time, and performing well.
"We want to display our skill and pace here, of course, but our real aim is to be successful too,” he said, underlining the fact that the South Africans are likely to be a formidable proposition for all the national teams.
Portugal: "A handy mixture"
The final match of the opening day features Portugal, back in the torunament after an absence of five years, and Argentina's second string, the Jaguars, one of the “original cast” and winners of the first tournament in Lisbon in 2006.
Several of the Jaguars represented Argentina in the recently concluded South American Championship, which they won comfortably. According to their captain and fly half, Santiago Gonzales Iglesias, the team is looking forward to "an intense fortnight which will provide a hard test of character and ability”.
Portugal's captain, tight-head prop Joao Correia, thanked the organisers for the invitation to participate, pointing out that as far as Portugal is concerned the tournament was the launching pad of the future generation of international players - “a handy mixture of seasoned professionals and aspiring talent.”
The Portugal Union's Technical Director and former National team coach, Tomaz Morais, added: "Missing out on Rugby World Cup qualification wasn't good for us because after the last World Cup in France everybody knows about rugby, we have a different game in Portugal. We get good coverage by the media, we have a lot of supporters coming to games, we have kids playing at school and sponsors interested in Rugby.
So we were disappointed, but we played the 50-50 games with Romania, Georgia and Russia, had a bit of bad luck. But now we have a new aim, a different strategy looking ahead to England 2015, that's our goal.
"Errol Brain, the new coach was my choice and he is doing very good work in Lisbon with the boys. He is a very good man, he's a very good coach with lots of ability and the boys are very happy with him. We have a new face in Portuguese rugby, which is a good thing. I'm expecting a very strong game against the Jaguars. Whether we can win the tournament, I don't know. It's not our objective right now because we have some young players coming into the team. We played very well in February and March but game by game we need to improve our quality and our level."
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