The Ultimate Churchill Cup Team-by-Team Guide

As last Saturday’s Premiership final drew another fine domestic season to a close, many eyes have turned to the fast approaching Rugby World Cup, due to kick off in 98 days – not that we’re counting. Marking the onslaught of internationals over the coming Summer months, the Churchill Cup begins in earnest this weekend. Here we’ll give you a run-down of the tournament format, as well as some individual team analysis.

England captain Luke Narraway

Running from the 4th of June to the 18th, the tournament is split into two pools: Pools A and B.

Pool A: England Saxons, USA and Tonga

Pool B: Italy ‘A’, Russia, Canada

Each team will play the other two teams in their pool in a round-robin format. The top placed team in each pool will then contest the final, marking the climax of the tournament. The second and third place sides will also face off in the plate and the bowl finals respectively earlier on in finals day.

Pool A

England Saxons
As almost a warm-up to this tournament, many of Stuart Lancaster’s side battled bravely in defeat last week against the more experienced Barbarians. This Saxons team is the youngest Saxons squad ever, though the talent and potential within is bursting at the seams.

Gloucester’s number eight and England captain Luke Narraway is a player of immense talent who has fallen down the England pecking order over the last couple of years. Indeed it seems a long time ago since Narraway – along with James Haskell and Tom Rees – performed with such maturity and presence in New Zealand. But Narraway has grown in stature of late and put in a strong performance against the Barbarians last week. He’ll be eager to impress in this tournament and will realise that an England spot is not too far away.

The inclusion of Matt Stevens in the Saxons squad marks an incredible comeback and he is my one to watch. Only returning fully at the start of the year, Stevens’ impact has been so big that he was an obvious choice for Lancaster despite his clear need for match time. Martin Johnson will be watching with interest.

This year marks the first tournament in four years that will not be held in the USA, though the Eagles will be hoping for some better luck in this tournament. With only a bowl to show for the three consecutive years in the States, this team will be hoping to go at least one better this time.

USA captain Todd CleverThe USA will, as ever, be captained by their talismanic flanker Todd Clever. USA rugby’s pin-up boy and nicknamed “Captain America”, Clever currently plies his trade in Japan after stints in New Zealand and South Africa, where he became the first American ever to have played Super Rugby.

USA’s one to watch will undoubtedly be wing Taku Ngwenya. Bursting onto the scene with some scintillating tries at the 2007 World Cup – remember that try against South Africa – Ngwenya was rewarded with a contract to top 14 side Biarritz. Far from being overawed at the rapid elevation, Ngwenya has since gone from strength to strength and will prove a handful to any opposition.

This tournament marks the first invitation to the South Sea Islanders in what is usually a tournament for Northern Hemisphere sides. Selecting the Churchill Cup squad from a larger squad of fifty, of which all are under consideration for World Cup spots, coach Isitolo Maka has ensured that Tonga will provide strong competition.

The experienced Peripignan prop Kisi Pulu will captain Tonga in this tournament. Pulu is a veteran of two World Cups – a rare try-scorer at one of them – and will provide chiselled aggression in the Tongan front row.

Steve Mafi has exceeded all expectations this year at Leicester and will be Tonga’s one to watch in this tournament. Despite bearing early inclinations towards flanker, Mafi has settled in well at second row for Leicester of late. At only 21 years of age Mafi is still learning, but his dynamism and ball handling ensure that he is a threat in the loose as well as the tight.

Saturday 4th June – England Saxons vs USA
5pm, Franklin’s Gardens

Wednesday 8th June – USA vs Tonga
5.30pm, Moseley Road

Sunday 12th June – England Saxons vs Tonga
2.30pm, Kingsholm

Pool B

Italy ‘A’
Like Tonga, this will be the first time that Italy ‘A’ have fielded a team in the Churchill Cup. The announcement that Nick Mallett will be departing after the World Cup was not ideal preparation and will definitely rankle with the South African, however he will ensure his team are prepared fully for the tournament and this cup will provide a good test for those on the periphery. With the first team ranked only a few places above both Canada and the USA, it will be intriguing to see how well this second string squad holds up.

Beating the experienced Marco Bortolami to the post, Valerio Bernabo will captain the Italy ‘A’ side in the competition. The lock/flanker played a bit part role in Italy’s Six Nations campaign but hardly covered himself in glory in his only start against England. The former Italy Under 21 captain has drifted in and out of the first team but will hope a good showing in the tournament will resurrect his hopes of a World Cup spot.

Second only to Bortolami in experience, Mauro Bergamasco will be returning to the Azzurri after a length lay-off and will be Italy’s player to watch. The flanker (repeat flanker, not scrum half) will be hoping to prove his fitness to the Italian management before embarking on Italy’s warm-up schedule.

Teams will compete for the Churchill Cup TrophyCompeting in the Rugby World Cup for the first time ever this year, Russia will use this tournament to test their front line players to the fullest. Expanding their coaching set-up to include the likes of Kingsley Jones and Henry Paul, rugby union in Russia is clearly on the ascent.

Captaining Russia will be hooker Vladislav Korshunov. The 28-year-old led Russia to glory in the bowl final last year after triumph over Uruguay and will hold together Russia’s fearsome pack.

Russia’s one to watch is full back Vasili Artemiev. Due to join Northampton next year, Artemiev is set to become the first Russian to play in the Premiership. Scoring tries in all three of Russia’s matches in last year’s cup, the ex-Leinster academy player is a raw talent who will provide a great threat from full back.

Losing to the England Saxons in last year’s final represented a marked improvement for Canada, who had entered uncharted territories after a shock win over France ‘A’. Only a few places separate Italy and Canada in the IRB world rankings, and Steve Diamond’s men may be hopeful of sneaking top spot for the second year running.

Canada will be captained by hooker Pat Riordan who continues to combine a career in carpentry with part-time rugby in Canada. A player in the 2007 World Cup, Riordan has captained Canada in each of his last 13 matches.

Flanker Chauncey O’Toole’s impressive performances in last year’s competition earned him a short-term contract with the Glasgow Warriors and he will be Canada’s one to watch in this tournament. His time with Glasgow may have ended in disappointment when they announced that he will be returning to Canada, but the young loose forward should be watched with interest. James Pritchard of the Bedford Blues will also provide a threat from full back.

Saturday 4th June – Canada vs Italy ‘A’
2.30pm, Franklin’s Gardens

Wednesday 8th June – Canada vs Russia
8pm, Moseley Road

Sunday 12th June – Russia vs Italy ‘A’
5pm, Kingsholm

I’m sure that there will be many a keen eye on England’s young prospects. With the likes of Rory Clegg and Billy Twelvetrees being named in England’s starting XV for Saturday’s match it will be fascinating. However, hopefully this article has served to give you a bit more information on all the other teams in this year’s competition. Enjoy.

by Tom James

Photo: Patrick Khachfe/Onside Images