Seven franchises from six countries will start the Super Rugby Americas this weekend, the new tournament that unites the North and South of the American continent.
After 12 rounds, semi-finals and finals and a total of 45 matches, a new champion will be decided on 9 June.
The growth of rugby in the south of the continent, led by regional association Sudamérica Rugby and its growing professional tournament, Superliga Americana de Rugby (SLAR), was the catalyst for Chile's qualification for Rugby World Cup 2023, their first time amongst the world’s elite. Uruguay, defeated the USA in 2021, to qualify for the first time as Americas 1.
The USA fell just short of claiming the 20th and final ticket in the Final Qualification Tournament in Dubai in November, making it a double disappointment for North America after Canada's failure to qualify for the first time in history.
Selknam, the Super Rugby Americas franchise, will give Chile the best opportunity to arrive in prime condition for their Rugby World Cup debut on 10 September against Japan.
Last year’s finalists in SLAR, they will welcome the return of Clemente Saavedra from Europe and his twin Domingo, who has recovered from a knee injury suffered in the semi-final of SLAR.
Coach Nicolás Bruzzone has only selected Chilean players. “We opted not to bring foreigners to Selknam; four years of competition helped us develop our player base, which we see as something very positive,” he said.
The growth of the competition, which this year will go from regional to continental, is something that, for the experienced Bruzzone, is positive. “You don't just develop your game; year after year, development and growth is total for unions.”
From the USA
The American Raptors, based in Glendale, Colorado, joining the Southern movement representing USA rugby, will be Selknam's first opponent in Santiago.
With a blend of rookie players and experienced internationals such as Martín Landajo and Lucas González Amorosino (Argentina) and record holder Diego Magno (103 tests with Uruguay), the project is well underway.
"I'm excited; so is the team, our staff, the city and the Glendale community,” Raptors coach Sarah Chobot said.
“There are players that come from other sports like American football, baseball and wrestling. They all know what it means to be professional and have very good ball and mental skills. Although they are new to rugby, it will be very interesting to watch them performing.
“We are a young team with a lot of potential; our international veterans will push the level of experience that we are building,” closes the only female coach of the tournament.
Super Rugby Americas history will be made in Córdoba, Argentina, where Dogos XV, one of two Argentine franchises, face the Paraguayan Yacare XV franchise.
With 19 players eligible for Los Pumitas this year, four of whom could also play next year, youth will be a key factor in this new Dogos XV.
Experienced captain Franco Molina will have two former SLAR captains (Ignacio Gandini, from Olimpia Lions, and Franco Giúdice, from Cobras Brasil XV) to shoulder the leadership.
"We are building Dogos XV, which will be a competitive team, with young players who will have to quickly adapt to the high standard of this tournament," says Molina, at his fourth professional franchise, who is in line to be one of the Los Pumas second-rows at RWC 2023.
“We want an aggressive team, with the Dogos XV’s DNA, solid in our set pieces and that can play enjoyable rugby.”
The Paraguayans are also building from the birth of a High Performance programme that is paying off.
Coached by Ricardo Le Fort, Yacare XV has 13 Argentines and two Colombians in the squad, aiming to further reduce the number of foreigners in years to come.
One of the benefits of Paraguay’s High Performance programme and the growing competition is that “a generation of players that wants to train, enjoys training and trains a lot is being created. That filters to all the clubs,” says vice-captain Marcos Riquelme, at 31, the team's veteran.
“I would have loved to be 20, 21 years old and enjoying what I live now. I tell the guys that they are privileged. I would love to have a time machine. Because of how good it is, I keep making the effort.”
Finally in Brazil
The pandemic meant that in three seasons of SLAR, Cobras Brasil XV never played at home. On Sunday, they will host Pampas, the other Argentine team.
The home side will be competitive, says Josh Reeves, their interim coach.
"They are physically stronger than in 2022, building from last year’s tournament," he said.
“We will aim to have a very physical defence, good footwork with very talented players, and will develop our attack as the games go by. We have some backs that play very well.”
There is a lot of interest in the Irish import and number eight Donnacha Byrne, former Irish age grade international. There will be only five foreigners in the Brazilian team, which speaks of its growth.
The debut against Pampas will not be easy. The Argentines' scrum-half Eliseo Morales will be looking to keep his place with Los Pumas, after his test debut at the end of last year.
With nine players aiming to play in the World Rugby U20 Championship this year, there are also experienced players looking to be considered for Rugby World Cup 2023.
Michael Cheika, head coach of Los Pumas, said: “There are players in Pampas and Dogos XV who were with us last year and are in sight for the World Cup. We will see their performance in Super Rugby Americas for the future in the Argentine team.
“Super Rugby Americas is very important in young players’ pathway. It is important for people not only to watch the games on television, but also go see the games live, at the grounds. Having heroes like (Eliseo) Morales or (Franco) Molina is very important for the players of the future.”
Although technically not the defending champions, the last SLAR winners were Peñarol Rugby, who have a bye in the opening week.
A 100 per cent Uruguayan squad, albeit with some of the old leaders now in European rugby, “many youngsters are here to compete; that fills us with energy and pushes us to be up to the task," says Manuel Ardao, new team captain and SLAR’s MVP in 2022.
For Peñarol Rugby, Super Rugby Americas is part of a journey.
“We talked as a group about how important it was to be competitive in Rugby World Cup and win two games; we also talked in order to get to France ready for the task there are steps we cannot skip.
"Today we must focus on Peñarol Rugby and Super Rugby Americas,” closes a player destined to be recognised globally in France come September and October.
(Photo: Sudamérica Rugby / Gaspafotos)