As the last opportunity to qualify for a Rugby World Cup, the repechage has brought heartbreak and joy in equal measure over the years. We look back at some of the past drama and what success would mean to the competing nations.
When the final whistle sounded on the decisive second leg of the RWC 2015 repechage between Uruguay and Russia at the Estadio Charrua on 11 October, 2014, the emotions from the two sets of players could not have been any more contrasting.
The sense of joy from Uruguay’s players, as the realisation that they had qualified for England 2015 sunk in, was plain for all to see, while for Russia it was a story of heartache and tears at an opportunity lost.
“I cried like a kid on the field after the whistle,” admitted Russia’s star playmaker Yury Kushnarev, in an interview with World Rugby. “It seemed like we’d done what we needed to do but we lost control of the game. It was difficult to take. Four years of hard work dissolved, and I thought deeply about how I could find the motivation to move on.”
Having won the first match on home soil 22-21, Russia found themselves in front at half-time in the return fixture but a 21-point haul from fly-half Felipe Berchesi and three second-half tries saw Los Teros qualify for RWC 2015 instead, 57-49 on aggregate.
JOY AND DESPAIR
Uruguay could understand Russia’s pain better than most following their own excruciating near-miss in the deciding match of the RWC 2007 repechage.
After an 11-5 defeat to Portugal in Lisbon a fortnight earlier, Los Teros defied the second-minute dismissal of second-row Juan Bado to push Portugal all the way, outscoring Os Lobos two tries to nil to win 18-12.
But despite taking the lead with half an hour left to go, Uruguay could not find the extra score they needed to win on aggregate and make it to France.
The ecstatic celebrations at the final whistle made clear how important it was for Portugal to qualify for their first Rugby World Cup. Their coach Tomaz Morais confessed that, “for the past four years not a day has gone by in which I haven’t thought of the World Cup”.
Portugal were the only newcomers among the 20-team line-up at the Rugby World Cup in 2007 and, this time around, three teams are vying for that honour: Hong Kong, Kenya and Germany.
First-time qualification would come as a huge boost to rugby in those countries as the increased profile that Rugby World Cup brings often equates to a rise in domestic participation. Uruguay, for instance, saw their playing population increase by 50 per cent after booking their place at England 2015.
Kenya head coach Ian Snook, for one, is under no illusions about the impact that getting to Rugby World Cup 2019 would not only have on rugby back home but on the lives of the individual Simbas players.
“I am excited for the opportunities it would provide for the players. To perform on the big stage will expose them to clubs all over the world and believe me there are plenty who could be playing in Europe or Japan as quality professionals,” he said.
A repechage, of one form or other, has been used to determine qualifiers for a Rugby World Cup since the 1999 tournament hosted by Wales. However, this is the first time that a round-robin event in one location has been used.
Playing in the repechage will be a new experience for all the teams bar Hong Kong, who fell at the first stage of the RWC 2015 pathway in 2014, losing 28-3 to hosts Uruguay.
GETTING THE JOB DONE
For Canada, ever-presents on the Rugby World Cup stage since the inaugural tournament in 1987, failure to qualify is unthinkable.
But Aaron Carpenter, Canada’s most-capped player in history, has every faith that the Canucks will book the final ticket to Japan 2019 and take their place alongside defending champions New Zealand, South Africa, Italy and Namibia in Pool B.
“Since spending three weeks with the team (as an assistant coach) at the Americas Pacific Challenge, I can see how much hard work has been going on behind the scenes.
“It would be a real setback if Canada didn’t make it to the World Cup. But all of Canadian rugby is 100 per cent behind the boys and I have complete faith that the current team of coaches, medical staff and players involved in the repechage will get the job done.”