Sunday, 23 February 2014

Georgia and Romania coast undefeated to World Cup qualification

imageBoth Georgia and Romania officially secured their qualification for next year’s Rugby World Cup in England this weekend with easy bonus point wins over Russia and Spain, but the poor challenge from the other ENC nations this year has been notable and the trend is becoming a cause for concern.

As the Lelos and the Oaks both racked up bonus point wins against Russia and Spain this weekend to confirm their places in Pool C and D of next year’s World Cup, you'd think that it would be a big cause for celebration. In reality though it both have had the two automatic qualifying places sewn up a long time ago, neither had particularly special performances and it was more a case of just going through the motions and getting an expected win.
RWC 2015 set to welcome European qualifiers
Romania and Georgia are both
unbeaten during this edition
of RWC qualifiers. Between
them they have only conceded
one try this year so far.

The 2013/14 European qualification campaign has been a bit like the previous 2009/10 qualifiers in reverse. In 2009/10, all of the leading four nations Georgia, Romania, Russia and Portugal were reasonably competitive and took wins off each other, whilst the bottom two Spain and Germany lost all matches against them and just competed with each other for relegation. This time around, it’s the bottom four who are all competitive with each other, and the top two Georgia and Romania have beaten them all and are just going through the motions in preparation for a big final on March 15.

Heading into the games this year, Georgian and Romanian wins have been foregone conclusions. They have resembled that string of tune up wins an up and coming boxer has to have before they get to a big fight. Between them this year, they have scored 195 points and conceded just 28. The only try conceded was a gift offered by the gaffe prone Merab Kvirikashvili, other than that they have scarcely looked like conceding one as they work on polishing up their attack.

19th ranked Russia's
results vs top 18 nations
since the World Cup.
Neither Georgia or Romania have looked at all like losing since an ENC game since the opening round last year. Georgia in fact last year were on some of their worst form and played some of their least fluent rugby in recent memory, and Romania entered it with a freshly appointed head coach yet still both came away undefeated in 2013. This year, both have got better and looked increasingly like pros against amateurs and the gap has widened ever more.

What is the biggest concern is the complete and utter abjectness of Russia, who ranked 19th, finished 2nd in the last qualifying campaign and have World Cup experience and should be in theory the strongest competition to them. Even though the Bears have all but secured the third place, they are nearer Belgium in the relegation spot than they are Romania in second. Their last two matches have been 34-3 and 36-10 defeats to Romania and Georgia. The Russian woefulness has hurt the tournament as a spectacle, their amateurishness in many fashions has been a complete contrast to Romania and Georgia.

Russian 'coach' Kingsley Jones
following a big 34-3 home
defeat to Romania and ahead
of a game with big rivals
Georgia, opted to spend time
at Cowbridge RFC.
This week the ENC leaders played at top facilities in the UEFA 5 star stadiums in Cluj and a sold out 55,000 Dinamo Arena, Russia’s last home match was played in a random field in an obscure village. Georgia and Romania both have coaches who have invested into their projects, Russia have a coach who jets off to appear on Scrum V straight after matches and last week instead of coaching his side was at Cowbridge RFC having banter in a clubhouse.

On the field, they are essentially the same team that qualified for the World Cup, minus a few retirements. The injured Denis Simplikevich has been perhaps the only real player of note they’ve produced over the last 3-4 years, and barely one player has emerged since the World Cup. In their lineup against Georgia, only 1 player had made their debut within the last 4 years. This despite the boost of a World Cup appearance and the IRB opportunities and much improved fixture list and increased funding that comes with that.

And from the players they do have, the two training and playing at a higher level of rugby in France or England are exactly the same two that were playing there before the World Cup, with others either not taking the opportunity or giving up and coming back home. There has been a failure in both the Russian youngsters coming through, and the lack of improvement in the current team.

But the blame for the main two running away with it can’t lie entirely at Russia’s feet. The Iberians and their Unions also need to take a hard look at themselves as their efforts have been equally as amateur. They have been so disappointing as to allow a sub standard Russian team to take third spot with weeks to spare.

Regis Sonnes left Spain not
long after leading them to
their best ever ENC finish.
The Spanish had their best ever ENC season in 2012 finishing 2nd. After that you might expect the Union to give their out of contract coach Regis Sonnes a congratulatory deal and asked him for more of the same and lead them to the World Cup. But the FER was some bizarre reason offered Sonnes not the contract until the World Cup he wanted, but a 1 year deal, which was rejected.
After losing their successful coach, in their next cunning move the FER decided they would ditch most of their players from France who Sonnes had done well with, claiming they weren’t committed. So going into the qualification campaign, new coach Bryce Bevin inherited a side that was more like the one that could only beat Germany in 2009/10. Of course when they inevitably bombed down to finish in bottom place in 2013 and the World Cup dream was over and they found themselves in a relegation battle, Bevin was described by fans as a “donkey” and took the sack.

The FER scored an own goal in 2013, and although have now brought back a number of their French players and look like staying up, this year they looked poorly coached and unstructured. And there are still bizarre selections, when facing Romanian props who from Castres and Perpignan, picking a debutant from the Spanish league at tighthead prop alongside a loosehead with 7 caps from the French fourth division was essentially leaving a scrum suicide note.

Portugal meanwhile, have also been a disappointment. They have offered next to nothing in attack and are like a worse ENC version of Scotland, plenty of passion and effort for no result. Despite Spain’s own goal and Russia’s woes they failed to capitalise in 2013 and ended up sacking their coach Errol Brain.
Portugal fielded a youthful
team in November, but
flipped selection policy for
the ENC. Recalling players
like scrum  half Emmanuel
Rebelo, a 33 year old with 1
cap won back in 2009.

His sacking though appears to have not come with any plan and they have been even less competitive without him. It’s hard to work out precisely what they are trying to do given the bamboozling selection policy under new coach Frederico Sousa. In November they went faced Fiji and Canada with a really young side giving 11 players first caps and got thrashed easily, this would suggest they are backing youth. But now in the ENC they recalled a 38 year old winger after two years out of the side, and recall half backs with 4 caps between them for the first time in 5 and 3 years respectively, just very odd.

In regards to Portugal, that team under the name Lusitanos XV who were utter embarrassment in the Amlin Challenge Cup can’t be missed out. A Lusitanos XV squad that had 21 of the 36 man Portugal ENC squad and had the same coach. Like Spain, they look like staying up but they it doesn’t change the fact this has been a really poor season for them.

Belgium were the most
competitive promoted nation
in recent memory, but still
couldn't stay up despite the
poor showings from Russia
and the Iberians.
Finally onto Belgium. They get a bit of leeway in terms of criticism as they were the promoted nation and they have been a lot more competitive than either of Germany or Ukraine were in previous years. However the question has to be asked, if a team that is possibly the strongest promoted side in recent years, playing against sides who have been a shambles still can’t stay up, does the relegation really work or is it just one side swapping in and out?
GALERIE FOTO Naţionala de rugby a României a învins Canada într-un amical, 21-20
After the tense memorable
matches with them last
November and little chance
of joining the 6 Nations,
should Romania and Georgia
pursue North American
matches in the February/
March window?

From Georgia and Romania’s point of view, after this year’s edition of the ENC there is an added obvious appeal to Nigel Melville’s proposal of North American involvement in the February/March calendar. The games between the ENC leaders and the North Americans last November were all nail biting matches that came down to the last play. That proposition would certainly be a far better and entertaining product to watch, and could come with the bonus of booting out teams that treat you like a pub team.

In some ways this is beginning to be a bit like how Tier 1 pulled away from the likes of Canada around 2003 to 2006, but now a professionalising Tier 2 catching up to Tier 1 and pulling away from an amateur Tier 3. Russia, Spain and Portugal need to commit to professionalised strategies like Georgia (who’ve exported 39 players to Top 14 or Pro D2) or Romania (who have invested in boosting the SuperLiga with top players playing in the Top 14) have, otherwise this trend will continue.

Looking ahead to the 2015 World Cup, the likelihood is that either Russia or Uruguay (who have not impressed in the IRB Nations/Tbilisi Cup) will be in the England, Australia, Wales and Fiji pool of death, and Namibia (who have spent most of the post World Cup period getting basketball scorelines in Africa) will be facing the All Blacks and Argentina on 3 days rest. Considering that against those sides, both the other 5th seeds in the pools USA and the winner of Georgia and Romania would all be confident of a very comfortable win, the way things stand it could be a very tough tournament for both of them. Hopefully they quickly improve and don’t sully the collective effort of nations outside the Tier 1 clique.

1 comment :

  1. Georgia has a realistic chance of making QF in WC if they qualify as Europe 1.May be it is my wish.But I think Tonga is beatable and Argentina is not as good,generation change.They have massive decline of export players in TOP 14.