KUMAMOTO, Japan (Reuters) - The gap between the haves and have-nots in international rugby has proved difficult to bridge for most tier-two nations but Uruguay can hold hope that they are moving in the right direction after a landmark World Cup.
The South Americans bowed out with a 35-13 loss to Six Nations champions Wales on Sunday but they exit Japan with heads held high and with optimism for the future, having shocked Pacific power Fiji and shown clear improvement from England four years ago.
In a soccer-obsessed country of 3.5 million people that has claimed two World Cups in the round-ball game, rugby has taken time to establish a foothold, and the Uruguayans in Japan boast few household names.
However, with assistance from World Rugby, growing professionalism has reaped obvious rewards and shown how quickly gains can be made when quality coaching and administration are in place.
That was never more evident than in Kamaishi three weeks ago when Uruguay ambushed the Flying Fijians 30-27 for the biggest win in their World Cup history.
Uruguay had lost 47-15 to the same opponents in 2015 but they produced a disciplined and compact display under Argentine coach Esteban Meneses to hold on for a seismic victory.
The win sparked tears of joy from a team which four years ago boasted only four professionals in their ranks.
Now 18 of the squad are paid for their passion, with many plying their trade in the recently established Major League Rugby competition in the United States.
The joy of beating Fiji was tempered in part with a mauling by Georgia, a reminder that the South Americans remain a work in progress.
Their 45-10 defeat by Australia suggested a gulf in class but if anything the score flattered the twice-champion Wallabies who were under genuine pressure for large stretches in Oita.
For Uruguay, it was a big improvement on the 65-3 mauling by Australia in England four years ago and their late try was a minor triumph in itself.
Having camped themselves on the goal-line for much of the last 10 minutes, they bashed away until the Wallabies’ defence finally buckled.
Wales were similarly impressed by the Uruguayan tenacity as ‘Los Teros’ rallied to within eight points late on in Kumamoto until a couple of Welsh tries distorted the scoreline.
World Rugby’s efforts to develop minor nations has not always drawn universal praise but critics of their investments in Uruguay are thin on the ground.
The High Performance Centre, built near Montevideo in 2013, has been held up as a paragon for other emerging rugby nations.
With Argentina having blazed a trail for South American rugby, Uruguay has benefited from their neighbours’ rugby nous.
Proximity is often said to be key, and Uruguay is certainly in the right neighbourhood, with talk of the United States, the so-called “sleeping giant” of rugby, bidding to host a World Cup in 2027 or 2031.
Uruguay made great strides in Japan but they can reasonably hope for bigger dividends at the next tournament in France as their young squad banks another four years of experience.
“Through the World Cup games we were able to show we are evolving, but we do have to play more with tier-one countries,” Meneses said after the Wales defeat.
“It’s very important that we have those opportunities.”
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Toby Davis