North Wales will be the unlikely location in November for an International Rugby Board initiative designed to give tier-two and tier-three countries meaningful rugby between World Cups.
Russia, the United States, Canada, Samoa and Tonga will take part in a two-week series in Colwyn Bay as part of the IRB's £12.7m plan to increase the exposure of countries below tier one.
Samoa play Wales and France in November, Fiji face England and an Ireland XV and Tonga will have Tests against Scotland and Italy as part of the major tours schedule, but the IRB wants to provide more regular matches outside the summer tournaments most tier two and three countries play in.
"The smaller nations brought a lot to the last World Cup and in the past they have tended to be forgotten about between World Cups," said Mark Egan, the IRB's head of development and performance. "We will be paying for the teams to fly in to North Wales, their accommodation and meals, and we will be covering the players' insurance.
"The local authority in Colwyn Bay has generously agreed to underwrite some costs and with the double-header matches played over consecutive weekends, it will generate strong interest. We also have Georgia hosting Japan and Fiji for the first time, Canada facing the Maori in Oxford, Romania hosting the USA for the first time and Portugal touring South America."
One issue for the IRB is ensuring that players who are based in Europe are released by their countries if requested. Some clubs are not going to be pleased that players they thought would be available to them for the whole season will be missing matches in the autumn on top of their squad members from the six nations unions.
"The matches are all in the official international window and clubs have to
release players if they are selected," said Egan. "We only become involved if a union makes a complaint to us and we would then step in to resolve the problem."
While the IRB is making a significant financial investment in tier two and three rugby – the only expense it will not be meeting in November is the salaries of players – Olympic status is having an impact.
"Unions are getting access to facilities and expert help in their own countries because we are now an Olympic sport," said Egan. "The Netherlands women's team, for example, has just received an annual budget of €600,000 (£480,000).
"Doors are opening and it is a hugely exciting time for the sport. The Rugby World Cup will always be the key for us because it generates the money that allows us to invest in the world game, but Olympic status is making a difference."
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