Find out what this new Pan-American competition means to the six countries taking part – Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, the United States and Uruguay
The Americas Rugby Championship is a competition that can change the sport’s future. Based on the European Six Nations model, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, the United States and Uruguay will compete in an annual round robin, starting on the weekend of 6-7 February. Five Pan-American competitions were played between 1995 and 2003, though only one featured more than four teams, so this new version is unrivalled for size and scale. Here is what it means to each of the six competing nations…
Not that long ago, Argentina were seeking a regular tournament to play in – now they have the luxury of two. How times change. The Pumas appear to have the best of both worlds – the Rugby Championship to test their first-choice XV against the world’s best and the Pan-American Six Nations to give young players valuable exposure to Test rugby.
The relief that they didn’t join the European Six Nations, which would have almost certainly precluded them from playing in either of these competitions, must be palpable. And the benefit of having more competitions to play in is shown by the parallel example Japan, who use the Asian 5 Nations as a development tool and the Pacific Nations Cup for their best side.
Argentina are overwhelming and unsurprising favourites to conquer all in this new Pan-Am event, given their Rugby Championship success and the fact they reached a World Cup semi-final last year.
Former Pumas captain Agustín Pichot is the current Pan-American Rugby Association president and emphasises that the Americas Rugby Championship will help others follow Argentina’s lead.
“This is a historic moment for rugby in the Americas – we believe this championship will be a total success for developing rugby in this region,” he says. “In Argentina the change has been amazing but it is not just about us, we all want this competition to help others come in behind. Everyone wants rugby to be a game for all, across the world, and this tournament will be huge in helping that. There is a lot of work to be done but the future looks bright.”
It certainly does, and hopefully others can aspire to the high bar Argentina have set – regularly facing the Pumas can only accelerate that development.
Brazil will host Argentina this year in the final round of fixtures, and as a country they relish beating them – at any sport – more than anyone else. Most importantly, though, their rivalry can pull new fans from both countries towards the sport.
As comfortably the lowest-ranked side in this competition, Brazil are expected to struggle. However, Virgilio Neto, the former general manager for the Brazil rugby union who is now an ESPN commentator, hopes inevitable difficulties in facing high-quality opposition will not put newcomers off. He says: “Against Argentina, the States, I do not think we can score a try. I hope our long-term development is not forgotten – maybe in 2031 we can make a Rugby World Cup.”
This call for perspective is understandable. Brazilian rugby has come a long way fast. “In 2009 our union did not have anything – revenues, organisation, training games – and players had to pay to train for the national side,” Neto recalls. “Through hard work and pride it is now the best-rated sports union in Brazil because of all the values that make rugby union succeed.”
Such values are leading to some Brazilians deserting football for rugby, as Neto explains: “People are losing the passion and interest for football in Brazil because of the game’s corruption and politics. The Pan-American Six Nations will spread awareness of rugby, as people often don’t know the difference between that and American Football.”
Over the past decade, rugby clubs have increased five-fold to more than 300 and active players four-fold to more than 20,000. With a population exceeding 200m and Rio hosting rugby’s Olympic return this summer, the growth potential in Brazil is obvious, leaving Neto to encourage further media coverage. “Broadcasting games in Portuguese is also important to help the Brazilian public accept rugby as a global sport.”
Brazil will face the United States and Canada for the first time in their history, but their best chance of a win will come when travelling to Chile. Brazil defeated Chile for the first time in 2014 and have every chance of bridging the gap over coming seasons.
Canada enter this tournament after a promising but ultimately winless World Cup campaign that served to highlight their major current headache – sevens rugby. The shortened game is often prioritised in the Canucks’ elite domestic player base, reducing their 15s experience and contributing to winning positions against Italy and Romania not being converted.
Wing Phil Mackenzie admits it showed a need for further separation of 15s and sevens, whilst adding that it would fuel future motivation. “There’s no substitute for more games and the World Cup showed that in parts,” says the Sale Shark. “There are super-talented players but we’ll fall behind if they aren’t playing regular 15s rugby.”
The Americas Rugby Championship should help improve the consistency of key players, like fly-half Nathan Hirayama, who play little 15-a-side rugby outside the national team.
Canada have a plenitude of Europe-based players of which some Pan-American sides can only dream, and that is helping to slowly divide the sevens and 15s formats. For example, Tyler Ardron and Jeff Hassler heading to Wales to join the Ospreys in 2013 meant that the pair stopped playing sevens.
Canada host Uruguay and Brazil this year, and Mackenzie believes success in the Pan-American tournament can help cement rugby in the Canadian sporting consciousness. “The consistent fixtures so close together give fans something they can follow and get into, which is great in establishing it. Rugby for the Olympics has also gone huge, so combined it means growth of the game is crazy.”
The number of active adult players in Canada has tripled in the past five years to over 60,000, so that growth is already clear for all to see. Now they will look to make similar strides on the international stage.
The Pan-American Six Nations is the latest in a series of exciting developments for Chilean rugby, after they won their first South American Rugby Championship last year. Defeating Brazil and Paraguay, and most notably comfortably seeing off Uruguay 30-15, gives the national union’s vice-president Sebastián Bianchi belief that Chile are capable of replicating that form in this tournament. “This is an amazing chance to continue our recent success and get the world talking about Chilean rugby,” he says.
“We have come to this tournament to win games now, not just be here for the future. We saw the amazing Japan story at the World Cup and have to think that can be us one day.”
Bianchi’s optimism is understandable. Though few worldwide know of their development, Chile have risen to 24th in the world rankings, not far from where one would expect World Cup qualifiers to emerge from. They currently boast three European-based players too – locks Pablo Huete and Sergio Valdés of Massy and Agen respectively, and Carcasson tighthead prop Ramon Ayarza. The latter is just 22 years old, so he can lead Chilean rugby into a more professional era, delighting Bianchi. “Ramon is a great example that we are always using to young kids about where you can go with rugby.”
“Despite being almost all amateur players, Uruguay pushed us all the way with their physicality, which is right up there – the days of the blowouts are over.” That is Australia coach Michael Cheika praising the efforts of Uruguay at the World Cup, where the Teros went winless but showed vast improvement from when they lost 111-13 to England in 2003.
Carlos Arboleya scored Uruguay’s first World Cup try in 12 years during their defeat by Fiji while Agustín Ormaechea added another in the second half. Ormaechea admits the Pan-American Six Nations will be difficult, particularly in facing unfamiliar opponents Canada and USA, who play far more regularly. The Stade Montois scrum-half says: “They have different styles through playing sevens rugby a lot, so that will be a test, but we can learn from other teams too.”
The Teros are currently behind only Argentina in South American rugby, but that position will be severely tested in this tournament. Uruguay would probably settle for simply retaining that status, as Chile and Brazil have approximately five and 66 times the population of Uruguay to tap into, but Ormaechea welcomes their challenge. “We always want to win but we also want rugby to truly be a sport for the world – this tournament helps make this our reality,” he says.
Despite a poor 2015 World Cup, the Eagles should target finishing behind only Argentina, the sole Pan-American team they are ranked below. The USA boasts almost an entire XV of players with European clubs and scrum-half Niku Kruger thinks the new tournament is vital in increasing that number further. “It gives players the opportunity to play at a higher level more consistently and be seen, which hopefully will get more (of them) into European club rugby,” he says.
Upon the conclusion of the Pan-American tournament, a US professional league with six clubs will launch in April. This leap from the currently amateur domestic leagues naturally pleases Kruger, as rugby fights its corner in a crowded US sports market.
“We have shown the world that US rugby is going to step forward in the next couple of years through the Pan-American and domestic competitions. In America, rugby is the fastest-growing sport, but for most kids their dream is still to grow up and play in the NFL. We have to change that dream into wanting to play in the Rugby World Cup. The Pan-American Six Nations can be huge in bringing about that change.”
The signs are already promising. Rugby has grown 14% year-on-year across the past five years to current levels of over 1.2m participants, while 62,000 people watched the USA face the All Blacks in 2014 in Chicago. In that same region eight years ago a first rugby team was being put together – now there are 29.
Big things await for rugby across the Americas.
Americas Rugby Championship 2016 Fixtures
Weekend 6-7 February – Canada v Uruguay, Chile v Brazil, USA v Argentina
Weekend 13-14 February – Argentina v Chile, Brazil v Uruguay, USA v Canada
Weekend 20-21 February – Canada v Brazil, USA v Chile, Uruguay v Argentina
Weekend 27-28 February – Argentina v Canada, Brazil v USA, Chile v Uruguay
Weekend 5-6 March – Brazil v Argentina, Chile v Canada, Uruguay v USA