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SPORTS | 09-09-2019 13:15

Uruguay overcome odds to qualify for Rugby World Cup in Japan

The rugby community is small in Uruguay, just 6,000 active players – children included – in the entire country of 3.4 million people. But somehow, Los Teros have qualified for the Rugby World Cup.

In Uruguay, people say you'd have to be mad to play rugby, but despite a dearth of players the South American minnows have qualified for the World Cup in Japan.

There awaits the most daunting of groups with potential winners Wales and Australia joined by perennial qualifiers Fiji and Georgia.

For a country that has a proud sporting history in football – they won the very first World Cup and were twice Olympic champions before that – the nation's rugby playing cream have to content themselves with much more modest ambitions.

"Here we have a joke that those who play rugby have something wrong with their heads," fly-half Felipe Berchesi, who plays his club rugby in the French third division for Dax, told AFP. "The best conditions are in football, so when you play rugby people say you're mad." 

The rugby community is small in Uruguay, just 6,000 active players – children included – in the entire country of 3.4 million people. 

It's a close-knit bunch but with a total playing population of barely five percent of that of Wales and Australia, they know they are up against it. 

"The selection process is much more restricted than for example in a country like Wales that has 3.5 million people but they all play rugby," said Berchesi. 

What's more, while some of those players, like Berchesi, are playing professionally in France or the new US Major League Rugby, many others were amateurs until earlier this year, only turning professional when World Cup preparations got underway. 

"In countries such as Wales you have kids who are professionals from 15-16 years of age, and us since only two to three months. It's those years of professionalism that we lack that are the most difficult to replicate," said Berchesi. 

It's not just the limited time to prepare physically for a professional tournament against super powers such as New Zealand, South Africa or England, but also the exposure to the level that awaits them.

Lacking tough warm-ups

Los Teros' warm-ups have hardly provided a benchmark for what awaits, beating a South America select XV 24-20 before thumping Brazil 43-5. They have one more to come against a selection of Argentine players that didn't make the Pumas' 31-man squad. 

"It's true that what we're lacking is a warm-up match against a tier 1 nation to gauge what level we're at and what facets we need to work on," said Esteban Meneses, a former Argentine rugby player, now head coach of the Uruguayan national team.

"We got a lot out of our match against Fiji in November that went really well, but it would have been good to have another such opportunity." 

Given Uruguay were trounced 68-7, it is hard to imagine what it needed for Meneses to consider it to have gone badly.

Outside of their rare appearances at the World Cup, Uruguay almost never play against tier 1 sides – they've never played against New Zealand, Ireland or France and have only once before faced Wales, Australia and Scotland. 

Needless to say, they lost all those matches, as well as their two encounters with England and three against South Africa. 

They've played 42 times against neighbours Argentina, losing every time by an average of more than 30 points. 

At the last World Cup in 2015, Uruguay landed in the toughest group of all, alongside the hosts England, Wales and eventual finalists Australia. 

Fiji completed the group – meaning Uruguay will face three of those four again in Japan – but the South Americans were handed a tough lesson, losing all four and conceding an average of 56 points per game. 

'Against all expectations'

This time, though, Meneses is expecting some tighter matches. 

"Against Fiji and Georgia the aim is to be close in terms of the result and obviously against Australia and Wales to lose by no more than 30 points." 

Of course, that's the sober assessment of a realistic coach.

For players like Berchesi, the winner's instinct is something that burns brightly within. 

"Given that here people say rugby players have something wrong in their heads, we have the mentality of being used to going against all expectations," Berchesi, his country's all-time record points scorer, said. 

"So we expect to win a game. I don't know if the fans or the union expect to win a match, they're more cautious ... but us players want to win a game and we're doing everything we can to make that possible."

by Barnaby Chesterman, AFP

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