Five nations will contest the Sudamerica Rugby Girls U18 Sevens tournament in Sao José dos Campos in Brazil on Friday and Saturday with the winners to qualify for the Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018 in October.
The teams will play each other in a round robin with the top two to then contest the final, which will be played as the curtain-raiser to Brazil’s match with Argentina XV in the Americas Rugby Championship on Saturday.
Rugby sevens made its debut at the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, four years ago with Australia claiming the girls’ gold medal and France the boys’. Argentina won the silver medal in the boys’ event and will aim to go one better on home soil having already confirmed their place.
Hosts Brazil will face Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Paraguay in the round robin and with this being the first U18 level event held in South America, the teams know very little about each other.
“We don’t know much about the other teams, it is all a big mystery,” said Argentina coach Daniel Villén, himself a former Puma in sevens and 15s who began building up to this qualifying tournament two years ago, whittling the number of players down from 44 to the 12 in Brazil.
“Not having certain parameters is new, although we have a pattern of how each nation might play from their senior side.”
The importance of the Youth Olympic Games and this qualifying tournament, though, is not lost on any of the teams and Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay have senior national coaches involved.
Brazil’s women are the dominant force in the region, having won every South American tournament they have entered. Paula Ishibashi, arguably South America’s best-ever women’s player, is the team manager, while senior sevens coach Reuben Samuel is also coaching the Yarinhas.
“Our purpose is to introduce our younger generation to a higher level of rugby on and off the field. Giving them information and insight on how to be a professional athlete,” explained Samuel.
Colombia’s women shocked the region in 2015 when they beat Argentina in a nail-biting match to qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and their next generation are keen to retain that spotlight for rugby in their country.
“These processes are very important for the growth of our game because we are generating the base for future international players, promoting the game in different regions and giving younger girls a goal,” explained coach David Jaramillo.
Raising the standard is a common theme across the teams with Samuel firmly of the belief that “the access to professional resources to accelerate and enhance their understanding and abilities will ultimately provide Brazil women’s rugby with a bigger, better and more sustainable future within the World Rugby Sevens Series.”
The Rugby Americas North regional qualifier takes place at this weekend’s USA Sevens Invitational event in Las Vegas and involves both a boys’ and girls’ tournament, with four teams in each.
The girls’ qualifier features USA, Nanjing 2014 silver medallists Canada, Mexico and Barbados, while the USA, Canada, Jamaica and Barbados will contest the boys’ event.
All matches, save the finals, will be played at the Silver Bowl Sports Complex adjacent to Sam Boyd Stadium. The finals will be played inside the main stadium on Saturday.
Canada and Jamaica have the honour of kicking off the boys’ competition, while the USA and Barbados get the action underway in the girls’ event as teams chase down the prize of a place at the Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018.
As per an International Olympic Committee ruling, only one male and one female team can attend the Youth Olympic Games from each nation. Canada selected rugby as its team sport for girls, so if the team win in Las Vegas, then they will head to Buenos Aires.
The girls’ squad features four players who won a silver medal at the Youth Commonwealth Games 2017 in the Bahamas, in Taylor Black, Olivia de Couvreur, Carmen Izyk and Keyara Wardley.
“The returning players from last summer will provide leadership and experience,” said coach Sandro Fiorino.
Field hockey was chosen as the team sport for the Canadian boys so, if they win field hockey qualifier, then the rugby team will miss out on the Youth Olympic Games regardless of how they perform in Las Vegas.
While their efforts in the qualifier may ultimately be in vain, Canada U18 boys coach Damian McGrath is looking forward to seeing how his side perform.
“It’s a great opportunity for our young players to compete at an international event against tough opposition and the experience will provide them with a good foundation for future competitions.”
Following its highly-anticipated debut at the Olympic Games, enthusiasm for rugby sevens has continued to climb.
And for first-time participants Barbados, the qualifier provides a chance to show the rest of the world the progress being made on the Caribbean island, where World Rugby’s Get Into Rugby programme is now being delivered to children in 22 schools.
Despite entering uncharted territory, coach Kevin Cobham is confident both the boys’ and girls’ teams will make a favourable impression in Nevada.
“I’m confident that they will represent the island well. This is one of the most positive and dedicated groups of juniors I’ve ever coached,” he claimed.
“We have a good mix of powerful runners in the forwards and speed in the backs and we plan to utilise both in our game plan.”