The ninth edition of the IRB Nations Cup gets underway on Friday, with Emerging Ireland host nation Romania, Russia and Uruguay competing for the trophy.
With one of the four participating teams at the IRB Nations Cup already qualified for the 2015 Rugby World Cup and two others in with a shout of making it to England, results at this year's tournament in Bucharest will take on added significance.
That will certainly be the case for Russia and Uruguay, who are scheduled to meet each other in the final round of the Nations Cup on June 22, and are potential rivals for the final qualifying place at the World Cup.
Both have made it through to the Repechage semi-finals - essentially the last-chance saloon for the four also-rans from the Rugby World Cup qualifying regions, with Russia due to play the runners-up from the Africa Nations Cup, contested in Madagascar from June 28 to July 6, while Uruguay have a date with Hong Kong who finished second to Japan in the Asia Region.
For Emerging Ireland the focus will be on player development and performance, as it was when they competed strongly at last year's Tbilisi Cup - the Georgia-based tournament that runs parallel to the IRB Nations Cup.
The Irish side is coached by Dan McFarland, the Connacht assistant coach (pictured below), with Ulster's Neil Doak assisting him. Dominic Ryan has replaced his injured Leinster team-mate Mike McCarthy (calf) as captain.
Commenting on Emerging Ireland's opening game against Russia on Friday, team manager Joey Miles told the Irish Examiner: "We have got good footage on the Russians. We have a fair idea of what we're up against and these teams put a huge amount of emphasis of the physical side of the game.
"No doubt, we will be challenged in the physical sense and they also placed a lot of emphasis on their back row play, the breakdown and that.
"To beat them we've got to back ourselves. We've got a game-plan which we will adhere to and we won't go away from that unless we have to.
"Hopefully it will come down to our superior conditioning so that at the last quarter of the game it will become too much for the opposition."
Skipper Dominic Ryan added: "From last year's side that participated in the Tbilisi Cup, five players are now with the senior squad. This tour gives us the opportunity to show our talent, all the teams here are strong and hopefully it will a successful tournament."
Frenchman Raphael Saint-André will take charge of Russia for the first time in a competitive fixture when the Bears play Emerging Ireland.
Saint-André, the brother of France head coach Philippe, takes over from Kingsley Jones who decided to stand down from the role following the World Cup European qualifier play-off win over Germany.
Miles emphasised the importance of competitions like the Nation Cup in developing players for senior international rugby, especially with the start of the Rugby World Cup now just 15 months away.
"This is a serious tour and the national coaches will be represented at one of the games at least. In terms of the upcoming World Cup squad there are places up for grabs," he added.
"In the past it might have been seen as a development tour of sorts, but it is not the case this year - these guys are World Cup potential candidates.
"Five players came through from last year's Emerging Ireland side and were in the Six Nations squad. We would hope that we would have similar numbers this year."
However, the Romanians, who are aiming for a hat-trick of Nations Cup titles, will be fielding a young squad that is missing 10 players mostly through injury. Veterans Paulica Ion, Mihaita Lazar and Stelian Burcea are being rested after their club seasons.
The Oaks' backs coach Eugen Apjok explained: "This is a good opportunity for the youngsters to show what they are made of, and also it is a good opportunity for us to do a serious inventory before the World Cup.
"We are in a very tough World Cup pool, which includes France, Ireland and Italy, and we need to get prepared for that level."
Now well-established as the premier summer tournament for tier 2 nations, the IRB Nations Cup is a key element in the IRB's strategic plan to increase the competitiveness of the game on a global basis.
Tournament organisers are confident that public interest will not be undermined by the start of Football World Cup 24 hours earlier.
"It will be a tremendous tournament, I promise you," said Lucian Lorin, the Federa?ia Român? de Rugby Head of Communications and Marketing. "Rugby is not competing with soccer for its public. The tournament has established itself among the rugby family and I am sure the ninth IRB Nations Cup will be a success."
All of the games will be streamed live on www.rugbytv.ro/player, with live TV coverage in Romania on TVR 2.
Match tickets are available to buy at www.bilete.ro and www.myticket.ro, as well as from the Romanian Rugby Federation (Bd Marasti no. 18-20).
2014 IRB NATIONS CUP (Bucharest, Romania):
Friday, June 13 -
EMERGING IRELAND v Russia, Stadionul National Arcul de Triumf, 4pm local time/2pm Irish time
Wednesday, June 18 -
EMERGING IRELAND v Uruguay, Stadionul National Arcul de Triumf, 4pm local time/2pm Irish time
Sunday, June 22 -
Romania v EMERGING IRELAND, Stadionul National Arcul de Triumf, 7pm local time/5pm Irish time
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