Six nations will compete at the World Rugby Americas Pacific Challenge 2018 from 6-14 October as the head coaches involved continue to run the rule over players ahead of selection for Rugby World Cup 2019.
With three matches each, the tournament will offer a timely opportunity for emerging talent and experienced players alike from Uruguay, Argentina, USA, Samoa and Tonga to stake a claim for full national honours ahead of the game's flagship event in Japan in two years' time, while for Canada it is a vital part of preparation for next month’s RWC 2019 repechage tournament in Marseilles.
“This APC tour is focused for a large group to put their hand up for preparation for November’s internationals. With all eyes on qualifying for Japan, we need a greater pool of players, including our more experienced professionals, playing high-quality rugby ahead of the repechage and the APC gives our domestic-based players that chance,” said Canada head coach Kingsley Jones, who has also arranged a warm-up game against English Championship side Coventry as part of his side's build-up to the big showdown in south-west France.
In November, Canada will face Kenya, Germany and Hong Kong on the 11th, 17th and 23rd day of the month respectively with the winner advancing to RWC 2019 as the final qualifier.
Jones’ roster for the APC in Uruguay includes well-known names in the Canadian outfit, including Ray Barkwill, Phil Mack, Hubert Buydens and Gordon McRorie, along with the resurgence of Clayton Meeres and Jordan Wilson-Ross.
“Wilson-Ross and Meeres were both spotted for their play at the Canadian Rugby Championships this year by our coaching staff and were rewarded with an opportunity to impress in Montevideo,” added Jones.
The World Rugby Americas Pacific Challenge kicks off on Saturday.— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) October 2, 2018
@unionargentina XV v @manusamoa A - 11:00hrs (GMT-3)
Tonga A v @USARugby Select XV - 13:30hrs
@RugbyUruguay A v @RugbyCanada A 16:00hrs
Follow LIVE on https://t.co/EORlgDAIuA pic.twitter.com/AEJEVjeM5w
Joining Jones’ coaching outfit in October will be Canada’s all-time leading cap winner Aaron Carpenter. The former Canadian captain, who won 80 caps between 2005 to 2017, is also working with the Ontario Arrows of the Major League Rugby.
“Aaron has been a true servant to Canadian Rugby for nearly 20 years as a player and I’m excited for him to join our staff on tour,” added Jones.
On the same day that the senior Argentina team conclude their Rugby Championship against Australia in Salta, the Argentina XV begin their bid for a hat-trick of APC titles against Samoa A.
Argentina XV swept all before them last year, scoring 238 points and 36 tries in big wins against the A teams of Uruguay (82-7), Samoa (85-14) and Canada (71-17), and are yet to lose in the short history of the APC.
Hooker Axel Zapata is one of a number of players who return from last year’s triumphant group and the 25-year-old hooker is confident his side can maintain their proud record in the competition.
“We are a very similar group to the one that has been playing for Argentina XV through the year, which is positive," he said.
“We start full of energy and wanting to close the season the best we possibly can.
“Now the goal is to take what we have done on the training field to the tournament. We want to be competitive and win the last tournament of the season.”
Buenos Aires-based Zapata is expecting a tough start to their campaign, knowing they must match Samoa in the physicality stakes if they are to set off on the right foot.
“I played against the Samoans last year and they are very physical. You can’t give them one centimetre because they grow in confidence and become hard to stop. We will have to take our physical game to them," he said.
“The Rugby World Cup is fast approaching and a tournament such as this is a great opportunity that we must use. We all want to showcase our best possible rugby and be part of the future.”
WORLD CUP FOCUS
For fellow South Americans Uruguay, the APC allows coach Esteban Meneses the chance to experiment, although there is still a wealth of experience within his 28-man roster. Juan Manuel Gaminara captains a squad with nearly 900 Los Teros' caps between them.
“For us, the APC is very important ahead of RWC 2019 as it allows the players to have a higher standard of competition, bringing in some new players to the set-up,” he explained.
One of the newcomers is scrum-half Joaquin Alonso, who has represented his country on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series but not at 15s, while fellow rookie Manuel Ardao has been converted from flanker to hooker.
While hopeful of improving on last year’s fifth-place finish, Meneses admits results are not the be-all and end-all.
“I don’t want to say the goal is to win the tournament, but you always play to win. We are working hard on getting better on the details to be ready for Japan. Where we finish in the APC will be down to how we play,” he said, on the eve of their first game against the USA Select XV.
“We are stronger this year than last year because we have a more settled and experienced squad and also because we’ve been very proactive in resting players throughout the season. The APC will also be important as a warm-up to November where we have two ranking tests," he concluded.
The Charrúa Stadium has undergone a revamp since last year’s tournament and Meneses likes what he sees.
“The stadium looks superb and although it will take some adjusting to play on artificial turf, we prefer the quick, high-tempo rugby it will allow us to play.”
Fast, high-tempo rugby was the name of the game in last year’s competition with an incredible 99 tries scored across the nine matches.
The USA Select XV were certainly not shy of the try line, scoring 18 and averaging 40 points per game in finishing second behind Argentina XV. Four of those were scored in the final game against Canada A by influential number eight Hanco Germishuys, who bounced back in style after serving a one-match suspension for the red card he received in the first-round defeat to Samoa A.
Joining him in the back-row ranks is Psalm Wooching, who was capped off the back of his performances in Montevideo, while fly-half Ben Cima is another senior Eagle looking to impress.
One of the standout names in Samoa A’s squad is Brumbies number eight Bruce Kaino, the younger brother of All Blacks world champion and Auckland Blues captain Jerome.
At 27 years of age, he is one of the older members of the squad. “I’m selecting a young team, mostly 19s and 20s to develop and expose them to this level of professional tournament,” said coach Mailo Potu Leavasa.
In 2017, the Samoans were unable to back up their opening day win over the USA Select XV and finished fourth after a heavy defeat to Argentina XV was followed by a 31-28 loss to Tonga A. The Tongans also beat Canada A to finish third in the overall table.
Only half-a-dozen Tonga players survive from 2017 including prop Solomione Kioa and back-rowers Kuli Tonga and Haloti Tupou in the pack and fly-half James Faiva, centre Paki Afu and full-back John Ika in the backs.
Operating under a first-past-the-post, cross-pool tournament format, teams from Pool A will play the teams from Pool B once on three separate match days.
The tournament winner will be decided by the total number of competition points accumulated in the three matches played.
Pool A consists of Argentina XV, hosts Uruguay A and Tonga A, while 2017 runners-up USA Selects are in Pool B with Samoa A and Canada A.