There will be a huge focus on youth rugby in South America in 2019 as neighbours Brazil and Argentina will host the World Rugby U20 Trophy and the World Rugby U20 Championship respectively later this year. While Argentina has hosted a number of international age grade tournaments, this will be the first time Brazil competes and hosts at this level.
It will be the fourth time the U20 Trophy travels to South America and, so far, the only two regional representatives have been Chile – also hosts in 2008 and 2013 – and Uruguay, inaugural champions 11 years ago and hosts in 2017.
Brazil are now aiming to become a major player in age-grade rugby. Although structures are not as solid as in some more established countries, there is sufficient raw material to work with within a vast country where the game is growing rapidly.
As five-time world champions, Brazil's football team still dominates the nation's consciousness, but rugby is making inroads – and at a younger age.
“States and unions are working hard to get better, to ensure kids start rugby at a younger age; it is a question of where to strategically put your resources,” says New Zealand-born Jake Mangin, head coach of the U20 Curumins.
“There are opportunities to get into schools but then it is a question of how to ensure club structures are ready to absorb those (new) players. There is no one solution for the whole country as it is so huge and diverse.”
Mangin is a dreamer and a visionary who has been in Brazil since 2010.
After playing rugby all the way up to Canterbury B at home in Christchurch, where he studied Sports Coaching, he decided to move to Brazil to work with the Union once he knew the country would be participating in the rugby sevens competition at Rio 2016. In the process, he met his partner Bianca and they now have two children together.
“I played one season for the Saracens Bandeirantes and started coaching the U16 and U18 women’s teams,” he explains.
In 2012, the Crusaders became involved with Brazil’s High Performance department and Mangin was brought into the system. Since then, he’s been the assistant coach to the men’s national 15s team and also sevens coach since 2015, fulfilling his Olympic dream in Rio 2016.
Last June, he was also asked to take care of the age-grade programme. “This includes U17s, U18s, U19s and U20s,” explains the 37-year-old, who, after almost a decade in the country, speaks fluent Portuguese.
“At these ages, the concern is the quantity and quality of games they play at club level. We had a good U20 team in 2018, but most are no longer eligible and have moved up to the seniors.”
The playing pathway also opens other doors. “When I arrived Brazilian rugby had a different social structure. With the many social projects that started some 12 years ago, it has become a far more inclusive game; it has changed its face.”
Players from impoverished areas are included in Mangin's squad. “I have a few of kids from these projects. Rugby is helping them 100 per cent, giving them different perspectives, offering opportunities. We get them to learn English and we are telling them to use rugby as a vehicle.”
After scouting across the country, 40 players have been identified and will work together for six months to be ready for the U20 Trophy. Many will relocate to Sao José dos Campos, the tournament's venue and where Brazil Rugby has a big rugby hub.
“Seventy per cent of the players are from the Sao Paulo state. They are going into testing and training programmes," says Mangin. "We’ve made accommodation available in Sao José dos Campos as we are trying to bring as many of those kids into a daily training routine.”
With this, 95 per cent of the enlarged squad will either be based in Sao José, or Sao Paulo, a 45-minute drive south. “From here, they will go back to their clubs, better players and contribute after the Trophy.”
As uncharted territory, the U20 Trophy will be a huge challenge for Brazil. But Sudamérica Rugby has put great emphasis on age-grade competition so the future is positive.
“From what I’ve seen from previous Trophy tournaments, the key is physicality and combativeness around the breakdown area. We know that we lack experience and, with limited resources, we have to make it work," Mangin admits.
There is sufficient brain-power in the coaching set-up with Mangin working alongside Daniel Danielewicz, the former test captain, Argentina-born, Portugal international Eduardo Acosta and former Paraguay national coach.
And the Curumins' pre-tournament schedule has been put in place with games against the B and C national sides, an almost certain three-game tour to Córdoba in Argentina and the U20 South America Championship which will also decide which additional team represents the region in the Trophy. The Martins Pereira Stadium will host eight nations in what has become a great tournament.
“That tournament will give us an idea of where we stand ahead of the Trophy," he says.
As a resident of a city, Mangin knows Sao José dos Campos, population 700,000, will be up to the task. “It is organised, safe, with a high quality of life and central – close to Sao Paulo – with beaches two hours away, and mountains close by. The most important aspects are that it is safe and easy to get around.”
Going into the unknown means goals are not set in stone at this stage.
“It sounds clichéd, but we want to do the families and country proud with a good performance. We can’t ask for anything results-wise at the moment. We are focusing on the process and training every day and getting better.”
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