Thursday, 20 March 2014

The Romanian U19 class of 2005


Romania's Under 19 class of 2005 finished 7th in the world and has gone onto provide several players at the heart of the current national team, but is there a worrying overreliance on them?

Coming into the 2005 U19 World Championship in South Africa as the promoted side from division below, few would have expected Romania to come as high as 7th ahead of nations such as Argentina, Ireland and Scotland. It was a super achievement for a side of Romania's resources and it was without doubt the most successful Romanian junior team since 1996, which involved the likes of Petre Mitu, Ionut Tofan, Sorin Socol, Alex Manta, Florin Corodeanu and Gabriel Brezoianu.
The Romanian U19 team photo in 2005. 12 went onto become full
internationals and 8 are in the current squad.

The squad from the 2005 U19 team has gone onto provide even more to the national team than the 1996 one did. In total 12 of the squad have gone onto win full international caps. But not only have several of the 2005 U19 players merely just been capped, they have gone on to be the heart of the side, providing some of the most influential and leading players such as captain Mihai Macovei, record try scorer Cătălin Fercu, record points scorer Florin Vlaicu and Top 14 champion Mihai Lazar.

8 of the 12 internationals from the 2005 U19 team are in the current Romanian squad and 7 of them started the Oaks recent game against Spain. Incredibly just under half the first choice starting Romania team was provided by one year of players, you'd struggle to find any other international team have that much influence from one junior squad. However, despite the success of the generation born 1986, there is also a major concern is on the horizon.

Half of Lynn Howells 30 man squad for the ENC were born between 1985 and 1987, 9 of the 15 were born the same year in 1986. As we've seen with the form shown by Romania of late, with November wins over Tonga and Canada and an easy path to World Cup qualification, this generation of players are getting to their peak right now. They still have plenty of years left in them so there is no need to panic just yet, but in the long term there is a distinct danger in being so reliant on and having such a disproportionate amount of the squad near the same age. Romania could be hit with one big wave of players either declining or retiring around a similar period leaving a talent vacuum and a very inexperienced side (a similar problem is also very soon facing Italy who have for years relied on a generation led by players born 1982 to 1984).

Romania's recent results at age grade
level have been poor in comparison to
how their seniors have been faring.
Romania will need a solid succession plan to cope when that happens, but the most recent youth teams have been struggling, really struggling. Virtually every age group side since 2005 has been poor, and despite the senior team's securely booked place in the top two of the ENC the junior level tables paints a completely different picture.

Last year the U19 team ranked 5th amongst their ENC counterparts for a second year in a row in qualifying for the Junior World Rugby Trophy (a tournament they haven't reached since 2010). Their U18 team was even worse, finishing 7th best ENC side last year not just behind the likes of Spain, Portugal and Russia but behind Germany and Poland too, and considering they finished 6th the year before that it can't be seen as a one off.

As a contrast, their big ENC rivals Georgia qualified for this year's JWRT with wins of 69-8, 31-3 (against a side that had just beaten Romania 27-10) and 32-6 in the final. Their U18 team recently has not only dominated the ENC competition but been pushing the 6 Nations sides as well. They've beaten Italy now two years running and last year only lost narrowly 31-27 to Ireland.
Ionut Dumitru is the only
player in the Romanian
starting XV born after the
death of Nicolae Ceaușescu

The disparity between the sides young players levels can be seen in the senior sides as well. In the recent match against Georgia the only players Romania had under 25 in the starting lineup were the wingers Ionut Dumitru and Mădălin Lemnaru. They are also the only two Romanians under 25 who have won more than 8 caps and that really doesn't say a lot for the last few years of Romanian youngsters born in the 1990's.

Again to compare that with Georgia who have been virtually the complete opposite in the amount of young players coming through. In the starting lineup that recorded the upset over Samoa, the Lelos had 7 players under 25 in the starting lineup, and 4 players over under 25 already have 20 or more caps and have another 4 not far off with between 15 and 19 caps. Georgia could pretty confidently say they have players both in the pack and the backline who will be leaders of the side for the next decade.

Since Romania's worst ever ENC finish of 4th in 2009, the generation born 1986 has stepped up a level to takeover and lead the team and have earned deserved credit for a recovery from what some predicted could be the start of a long slow decline, but there's still a long way out of the woods for the Oaks yet over the long term.

The FRR have reacted to the problems with so far the strategy being to boost the standard of the SuperLiga, keeping more national team players in it and adding foreign players to boost the standard young Romanians will play. And this year they are enforcing quotas for U23 players in matchday squads as well as compulsory training standards on all the teams.

Improvements to fix the ailing youth system is essential for Romania over the next few years if they are to continue to produce competitive teams. The FRR knows this and in fairness to them do seem to be making plans to address the issue which offers hope as opposed to burying their heads in the sand. But there is another factor to be considered, one that tinkering with the SuperLiga isn't going to make a great deal of difference to.
The birth rate in Romania dropped
off significantly post communism.

It's well known the fall of communism in 1989 struck the Romanian national side badly and success suffered as state funding decreased and player base decreased. What also happened around that time was a sharp fall in birth rate, deaths have outnumbered births in Romania every year since 1992 and the population decrease is a trend forecasted to continue. The birth rate in Romania according to the CIA World Factbook is the 3rd lowest in the EU.

It's a possibility that Romania are now suffering through their youth sides is an after shock from the bump rugby took post communism. Along with the birth rates, the popularity and success of the sport has fallen and it could be simply that rugby has not attracted enough Romanian talent from a smaller pool of people born in the 1990's. By comparison, Georgia has had more births than deaths since 1992 and the sport has had a big increase in popularity and many of those born in the 1990's would have grown up watching them evolve into the dominant force in the ENC.

At the end of the day though, only time will tell whether the FRR's plans to address the problem will succeed or not. Finishing with an optimistic hat on, perhaps the current generation led by Fercu could achieve something to increase revenue for the FRR and play their role in helping the Oaks future.

Romania Under 19 class of 2005
The internationals:

imageCătălin Fercu (centre) was the captain and star of the team and made his full debut later that year, he has gone onto win 72 caps and is Romania’s all time leading try scorer and one of their finest ever backs.
imageFlorin Vlaicu (full back) made his full debut in 2006 and spent the first 5 years of his international career at full back, but since the World Cup has been first choice either at 12 or 10, has 70 caps and has broken the Romanian point scoring record.
imageMihai Macovei (lock) has moved from lock and played all his senior career in the back row, made his full debut in 2006, been regular starter since 2008 and been captain since 2012 and now has 51 caps. Moved to France in 2012 and plays for Saint Nazaire.
imageMihai Lazăr (prop) made his full debut in 2008 and now has 39 caps, a formidable scrummaging force and one of Romania's best assets. Moved to France in 2009, and joined Castres in 2012 who he won the Top 14 with last year.
imageStefan Ciuntu (wing) made his full debut on the wing against New Zealand in the 2007 World Cup and became first choice, but had a poor try scoring record and was discarded after the 2011 tournament with 34 caps.
imageValentin Poparlan (lock) was in the squad a year young, but got injured and ended it on crutches. Made his full debut in 2007, in and out of the side after that with tough competition but now first choice lock with 34 caps.
imageViorel Lucaci (number 8) made his full debut in 2009, but took until 2012 to become regular member in the Oaks side and has only missed one match since the World Cup and has collected 30 caps.
imageDorin Manole (wing) made his full debut in 2009 but had to wait until 2012 to get back into the squad where he was an attacking fly half. He has more recently been used as a utility back and moved back towards the back three and has 17 caps.
imageCiprian Căplescu (scrum half) the diminutive 5' 5" half back won 7 caps between 2007/08 although missed out on the World Cup, was recalled for the 2013 ENC and now the back up scrum half in the squad behind Surugiu.
imageAdrian Ion (flanker) nicknamed Tarzan he won his only 2 caps in the 2012 ENC against Spain and the Ukraine at flanker and has been part of the Bucharest Wolves side for the past 3 seasons.
imageAdrian Matei (wing) was called up last year and won 2 caps against Georgia and Russia scoring a try but not been required since. Has played 4 seasons in France with first Saint-Junien and currently Limoges.
imageFlorin Maxim (prop) was prop in this team but converted to hooker and one his only cap against Russia off the bench in 2007. Now playing in the Romanian second division with CSU AV Arad.

The rest:
Flanker Laurentiu Melinte, scrum half Adrian Pasciuc and centre Sergiu Spataru both still have careers in the SuperLiga, whilst prop Valentin Pasol is in the second division. Fly half Razvan Bors nearly made it to full international level and was part of the wider 2007 World Cup training squad but was forced to retire aged 22 after suffering a horrific knee injury in 2009, which resulted into a row over medical bills with his club. Wing Claudiu Dumitru had similar fate, rupturing cruciate ligaments 3 times and retired aged 25 and is now a coach, Valentin Busuioc also retired young to become a coach. Others such as hooker George Tiu, vice captain and lock Gabriel Tomescu, centre Ovidiu Dumbrava, scrum half Daniel Bejan had a SuperLiga careers which have ended. Others such as hooker Andrei Lupei, flanker Marius Badea and Sorin Mihaila didn't make it that far.

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