Dublin-Ireland March 22, 2012: Saturday marks the start of Rugby World Cup 2015 qualifying as Mexico host Jamaica in Mexico City. Though the tournament is more than three years away, 80 teams are vying for just eight qualification spots, playing 184 matches in total – so there’s no time to lose. Grand Occasion
The timing of the event certainly hasn’t detracted from the sense of occasion surrounding the match. Craig Joubert, who refereed the RWC 2011 Final between New Zealand and France, will take charge of the match, while England Rugby 2015 Ambassador and RWC 2003 winner Lawrence Dallaglio has made the trip and will present both sides with their jerseys the night before. Another special guest, the Webb Ellis Cup, will also be in attendance.
Mexico, who only became a Full Member of the International Rugby Board in 2006, are currently ranked 71st in the IRB World Rankings, and the coaches and players know they have a fight on their hands to get anywhere near England for the 2015 tournament. But this qualification campaign is part of a much more long-term plan, as player-coach Simon Pierre explains.
“This year the plan is to try and to get to the final of NACRA (North America Caribbean Rugby Association),” explained the New Zealand-born coach, who also plays at number 8. “Of course we would love to win (that) competition but it’s a process that always takes time. We’re now into the second year of the process. It’s just a case of getting the skill levels up.”
Pierre arrived in Mexico in 2008, intending to make his way onto Europe after six months. Four years later, and after stints coaching the Under 19s and Sevens national sides, he finds himself taking charge of a Mexican senior team as they embark on a mission to increase rugby’s popularity.
Having a RWC qualifier in your capital can only help that mission, as Federación Mexicana de Rugby Chief Executive Alberto Ruiz Luca de Tena explains.
“It’s been growing in quantity of teams but not exactly in the quality of play,” he admitted. “At the moment there’s still a lot of work to do. Recently our national teams have been competitive. The numbers of players are increasing and we’re expecting the quality will increase with this exposure at national level.”
With such a big occasion on the horizon it would be easy for players’ heads to be turned, but Pierre knows what really matters to the Mexican team.
“For the Mexican rugby community I think it’s very much about the occasion. For us as a team we’re focused on just the match. Our responsibility, to make this whole thing a grand occasion, is to win the rugby game.”
Forward Erick Castillo understands the pressure being placed on his teammates. “It’s a big honour but it’s also a big responsibility. I’m nervous and proud at the same time, and really, really excited,” admitted the second row.
De Tena is confident that this match will mark the start of something big for rugby in Mexico. “Mexico is turning into a rugby country and for us to show Mexico to the rest of the world and to show our world potential and our hosting qualities is great.
“Many of the players know of all the expectations there are on this weekend. For some of them it’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For them it’s going to leave a very good taste in their mouths. For the rest of the people it’s going to be like a fiesta.”
What Mexico lacks in terms of rugby heritage, it certainly makes up for with enthusiasm and a desire to play the game in the right spirit. And according to Tom Jones, IRB Regional General Manager for North America and the Caribbean, Mexico, like Argentina, will eventually emerge as a force to be reckoned with on the world stage.
“It is going to be one of the bigger unions because of what they’re doing and the potential size of it,” he said. “Mexico is favourites for this first game, but I think it will be close. Mexico has only started to grow the way the IRB wants it to – we call it a major market investment – very recently.
“Five years ago, there were only half a dozen clubs playing in Mexico City. Now, they have 100 clubs around the country. But it still takes a long time to build a national team, and there are a lot of challenges to it that USA and Canada have been dealing with for 100 years. Mexico will emerge as the strongest union in the region eventually, but nothing happens all that quickly.”
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