For the first time since 2018, a full summer of rugby tours is back on the calendar, and though some of the bigger nations won’t be involved it all kicks off this weekend with growing rugby nations taking the centre stage.
Namibia take on Italy’s ‘A’ team to get things underway on Friday, with the Azzurri’s first XV travelling to Portugal the following day.
Elsewhere on the Iberian peninsula, a Barbarians team containing Tom Wood, Tim Nanai-Williams and Scott Baldwin take on Spain – who recently lost their place in the World Cup due to registration issues for the second tournament running – whilst Scotland travel to Chile, who face a tie for their place in the World Cup against the USA in July.
The Netherlands won’t be featuring in France 2023, but their game against Zimbabwe should be a fascinating indication of their relative progress as rugby nations, while the same can be said for already-qualified Japan and Uruguay’s second test.
Japan took the first test 34-15 last week, but a spirited Uruguay will hope they can yet cause a major rugby upset against the Cherry Blossoms.
Here, The Rugby Paper takes an detailed look at all of the games happening this weekend, and what to expect from each of the six matches…
Namibia vs Italy ‘A’
Italy’s brave step of sending two touring parties to separate continents may seem to stretch them a little thin, but it shows just how ambitious they are about turning their nation into a rugby powerhouse going forward.
‘Emerging Italy’, a side generally made up of U23s, have competed against a number of tier three and lower tier two nations over the years, but this Italian second team – who includes a few above that age including Carno Canna – are taking on a top tier two nation with plenty of Rugby World Cup pedigree.
This may seem like a lose-lose situation for Namibia, if they win it will arguably be meaningless in the context of their international rugby results, and a defeat would be disappointing to say the least, but it serves as terrific preparation for the Africa Cup, coming up in July.
Namibia play Burkina Faso on 1 July, followed by one of Zimbabwe or Cote D’Ivoire on 6 July before a final that would likely be against Kenya.
Win those, and they qualify for a seventh World Cup in a row, and this will be ideal preparation for three absolutely integral knockout fixtures.
Japan vs Uruguay
Undoubtedly the biggest of the games for this weekend, Japan and Uruguay go toe-to-toe once again in this intriguing two match series, involving two nations developing fast (albeit at different stages).
Uruguay are not far off being the kind of team that Japan were when Eddie Jones inherited them in 2012, and though that decade of development was clear to see in Japan’s first test victory, 34-15 was a highly respectable way to start a series in a country located halfway across the world.
To put the score line in context, when the Lions drew 1-1 with New Zealand back in 2017, they lost the first test by a greater margin at 30-8, and Uruguay will be hoping to pull a similar miracle out of the bag to draw this series.
Ultimately, Japan’s quality should come good, and with the development of their driving game in the first test they will continue to learn plenty from this, as they prepare for their upcoming two-match series against Six Nations France next month.
Netherlands vs Zimbabwe
A fixture that wouldn’t look out of place early on in a World T20 cricket competition – with both sides still gunning for the final two spots in this year’s edition – it’s hard to automatically associate these two sides with rugby.
But with the Netherlands having produced 14-try Scotland international Tim Visser, and Zimbabwe being the place that former England player and Exeter Chiefs legend Don Armand was born and raised, it’s clear these two nations can produce the talent needed to climb up tier two, which they both narrowly sit in at the moment.
The Dutch had a desperately disappointing Rugby Europe Championship, with Russia’s unsurprising enforced relegation the only thing keeping them in the second tier of European rugby, but a respectable showing against Romania in a 38-12 defeat in the final game can be a source of positivity, as they take on a team they have a much better chance of beating this time around.
For Zimbabwe, ranked eight places below the Netherlands in the World Rankings at #34, this will give them a clear indication of whether they have any chance of shocking likely opponents Namibia and reaching the 2023 World Cup.
Though they were ultimately trounced 41-10, they did lead Namibia at the break of their most recent meeting back in November, and an 80-minute performance in victory here would provide them with a quiet confidence they can reach a first World Cup since 1991.
Portugal vs Italy
The visitors in this game have an intriguing tour lined up, and one that you felt was designed before their stunning victory against Wales back in March.
After Portugal, Italy face Romania and Georgia, two fixtures that will likely draw many eyes to see once and for all whether questions of relegation – or indeed a play-off – for a place in the Six Nations carry any legitimacy.
Some will say that a Six Nations play-off is legitimate regardless, but if Italy can win against all three European second-tier teams who are going to be at – or in the case of Portugal have a chance of being at – the Rugby World Cup, they will silence those questions for the foreseeable future.
They have picked as strong a team as they can to kick off their progressively difficult fixture list, with the assister and try scorer from that magical late winner against Wales, Ange Capuozzo and Edoardo Padovani respectively, joining regular captain Michele Lamaro in a full-strength side.
Portugal were handed a surprise lifeline in their quest to reach only their second Rugby World Cup after Spain’s elimination, and face a Final Qualification tournament this Autumn to decide whether they can sneak into the last available place against the as yet unconfirmed representatives from Asia, Africa and the Americas.
They will likely go into this game expecting defeat, but will learn much from the contest as they prepare for a potential shot at earning a place in a World Cup group with Australia, Wales, Fiji and Georgia.
Spain vs Barbarians
It is a testament to the spirit of Spanish rugby that they have lifted themselves from the devastation of being ruled out of a second straight World Cup to get up for a game against a Baabaas side boasting plenty of international talent.
This is a completely different Barbarians squad to the one that hammered England, last week, but the quality is clear to see.
Alongside the aforementioned players above there will also be Devin Toner, Steve Mafi and captain Hadleigh Parks among the stars in this incarnation of the famous old club, coached this time by former Cardiff boss John Mulvihil.
Spain will play with spirit, in the same way that they are showing spirit off the field as they appeal World Rugby’s decision to eliminate them from next year’s tournament, and many will be hoping that appeal comes off given the circumstances of this latest ban.
But regardless of that eventual outcome we should be in for a cracking game here, and one that the retiring Tom Wood and Devin Toner will surely be hoping will be as thrilling as fellow English legend George Kruis’ send off was for the same team.
Chile vs Scotland ‘A’
The weekend ends with a game that is a delight to see, and even more delightfully is televised on Premier Sports 1 from 8pm on Saturday.
Chile have long been South America’s third best team, but their vast improvement in the last seven years has seen them clinch their first South American Rugby Championship – in a tournament that now excludes Argentina’s first XV – whilst being runner-up three times in that period.
The most notable of those times as bridesmaid came last year, losing only 15-10 to champions Uruguay in a game they led for long periods, before stunning Canada over two legs later in the summer to reach a play-off of the same format with the USA for the final Americas place in next year’s World Cup.
Even if they lose they may still have a chance in the Final Qualification Tournament involving Portugal, but will hope this can serve as a great test ahead of the first opportunity they have in those matches against The States in July.
Scotland’s ‘A’ team is by no means comparable in terms of relative strength to the South African ‘A’ team that beat the Lions last year, but still boasts some big names.
Matt Faegerson starts in the forwards with young gun Ross Thompson in the backs, and from 20-22 on the bench Scotland have Magnus Bradbury, Ali Price and Blair Kinghorn to call on if things get tight in the second half.
It’s a credit to Scotland for taking this fixture on to help develop the tier two game, and they are likely to learn plenty about the depth of their squad from what should be a great fixture in the South American sunset.
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