Canada's under-20 rugby team faces a tough test against a physical Georgia side Monday in the opening match for both countries at the IRB's World Rugby Trophy in Salt Lake City.
Georgia placed third as tournament host last year and was a 39-8 winner over Canada, which finished fifth.
"A massive test," said Canadian coach Mike Shelley, whose team arrived Thursday in Utah. "We faced exactly the same test last year. We held the Georgians for 50, 60 minutes or so but then they were just too big and strong for us.
"Hopefully we've done some work that's going to not let them get that physical advantage and then we can see what our fast boys (backs) can do."
The eight-team tournament represents the second tier of the International Rugby Board's men's under-20 competition.
The top 12 teams are currently competing at the IRB Junior World Championship in South Africa, where Wales, New Zealand, Argentina and the host team were involved in semifinal play Sunday.
The bottom-place team — Tonga last time — is relegated to the Junior World Rugby Trophy. The winner of the second-tier event — Samoa in 2011 — is promoted to the Junior World Championship.
The Canadians face some familiar foes at the eight-team tournament which runs through June 30.
Canada has been drawn in Pool B along with Georgia, Japan and Zimbabwe. Pool A features Chile, Russia, Tonga and the U.S.
Last year, the Canadians were beaten 38-9 by Georgia and 30-15 by Japan but defeated Zimbabwe 49-23. They were sixth in 2010 when they beat Zimbabwe but lost to Japan.
Japan is a two-time runner-up, having lost in the final to Italy in 2010 and Samoa in 2011. The Japanese led 17-0 last year in Tblisi, Georgia, only to lose 31-24. They arrived at the tournament on the heels of a 119-7 loss to Wales in Swansea.
African champion Zimbabwe is in the tournament for a third straight year but has only won one of eight matches to date.
While the teams change each year because of the age restrictions, Shelley says countries often arrive with a specific rugby culture or style.
The Georgians traditionally are big and physical, based around a powerful forward pack. The Japanese are organized, quick, skillful and very technical. Zimbabwe is a bit of a mystery team, although the country is progressing in the sevens side of the game.
All appear to have spent their time wisely since last year. Shelley reports the teams, which are all staying in the same location on a university campus, appear bigger, stronger and fitter.
"People are starting to implement processes at 17-, 18-, 19-year-old that are starting to show fruit," said Shelly. "And this is what the IRB is really pushing all Tier 2 countries to do, to work on the age grade-rugby players and get them able to play senior international rugby."
Canadian rugby has benefited from its new Centre of Excellence near Victoria where Shelley was able to spend time with his young players.
"Obviously it's about performance and we'll see in the results at the tournament but the skill level of the players has improved dramatically, just with the amount of time we've been able to spend with them ... It's an exciting team to watch."
Canada is captained by prop Jake Ilnicki and features four veterans of last year's tournament: backs Sean Ferguson, Mike Fuailefau and Clayton Meeres and forward Cam Stones.
The Canadian side features a powerful set of backs led by 19-year-old Taylor Paris, who was the youngest player at last fall's World Cup and recently signed a contract with Scotland's Glasgow Warriors.
Fly half Conor McCann is at the Clermont Auvergne Academy in France and was nearly called by up the senior Canadian side for its summer test series because of injuries at No. 10.
Ferguson will operate at scrum half with Paris and Michael Fuailefau at centre, Josh Hart and Lucas Hammond at wing and Jon West at fullback
Shelley calls Hart one of the quickest rugby players in Canada at any level.
"We've got a bit of pace, we've got some skill in the middle so hopefully we put together some plays and some technical execution that will help them find some space and be able to utilize that speed," said Shelley.
There were more defeats than wins in Canada's pre-tournament schedule, which featured a pair of losses to both Romania and the U.S., but Shelley says the warmup games were more about deciding on correct combinations and fixing fundamentals than fielding a final product.
"This tournament is about performance and execution whereas the other (warmup games) was more about player assessment."
The IRB is using the Utah tournament to test new pitch-side concussion assessment procedures.
Players who have taken a blow to the head will be able to leave the field of play for a five-minute assessment. A temporary replacement will be allowed while team and independent match doctors check the player out.
If doctors deemed the player should not return, the substitution becomes permanent.
"The advantage of this new procedure is that it enables an extra layer of protection for our athletes while delivering for the first time a standardized process of examination and assessment that doctors will follow," IRB chief medical officer Martin Raftery said in a release. "The five-minute window is ample time and will deter tactical manipulation and will not impact on the shape and character of the game."
Shelley likes the program, which he believes will help keep injured players safe while allowing those that are OK to return to the game.
"I'm not normally excited about some of the new changes but this is something that is built on player welfare," he said.
Notes — American Leah Berard is on the tournament panel of officials. She follows Australian Sarah Corrigan, who refereed at the IRB Under-19 World Championship in Belfast in 2007, and Kenya's Sarah Otieno, who was promoted to assistant referee during the 2009 Junior World Rugby Trophy. Also officiating at the tournament are Canadian referee Bryan Arciero and assistant referee David Smortchevsky.
Jake Ilnicki (capt.), UVic Vikes and Williams Lake Rustlers, Williams Lake, B.C.; Noah Barker, Vancouver Rowers, Courtenay, B.C..; Alex Marshall, Vandals RFC and The Rock, St. John's, N.L.; Lucas Hoppe, Lindsay RFC and Ontario Blues, Omemee, Ont.; Casey Reed, Moosejaw Nads, Airdrie, Alta,; Eric Selvaggi, Aurora Barbarians, Woodbridge, Ont.; Jacob Rumball, Balmy Beach Rugby Club, Toronto; Andrew McGinn, James Bay AA, Victoria; Ryan Monahan, Baymen Rugby Club and The Rock, Conception Bay South, N.L.; Cam Stones, Ajax Wanderers, Whitby, Ont,; Matthew Heaton, St-Anne-de-Bellevue RFC, Godmanchester, Que.; Chase Kelliher, Capilano RFC, North Vancouver; Lukas Balkovec, Waterloo County, Kitchener, Ont.; Andrew Ferguson, Oakville Crusaders, Mississauga Ont.; Mike Dalsin, Castaway Wanderers, Victoria; Conor McCann, Balmy Beach RFC, Toronto; Doug Crowe, Rowing Club, Courtenay, B.C.; Clayton Meeres, Abbotsford RFU, Chilliwack B.C.; Taylor Paris, Ontario Blues, Barrie, Ont.; Michael Fuailefau, UVic Vikes, Victoria; Gradyn Bowd, Red Deer Titans, Red Deer, Alta.; Jon West, Markham Irish RFC, Toronto, Patrick Kay, UVic Vikes, Duncan, B.C.; Josh Hart, Cowichan RFC, Minitonas, Man.; Lucas Hammond, Toronto Nomads, Toronto; Luke Campbell, UVic Vikes, Victoria.
IRB Junior Rugby World Trophy
June 18 vs. Georgia
June 22 vs. Japan
June 26 vs. Zimbabwe