Saturday, 9 July 2016

Romania becoming forgotten nation of world rugby


As another year passes with Romania playing low profile competition, they are becoming increasingly the forgotten Tier 2 nation of world rugby.

Whilst Japan were hosting Scotland in front of sell out crowds and Georgia were achieving historic wins in the Pacific Islands, how many people recall who Romania were playing last June?

The answer is very few outside the most hardcore of rugby fans. Whilst every other side in the world's top 18 were playing competitive test matches, the Oaks were battling it out again in a tournament hardly anyone cared or knew much about (there were no full match replays to be seen either this year as there have been in the past).

This year the World Rugby Nations Cup, a tournament that is partly developmental and usually played with experimental squads, partly just a vehicle to offer left over sides within the top 20 something to do each June, didn't even get copy & paste match reports on Planet Rugby.

Meanwhile World Rugby showed the standing of which they viewed the tournament by designating it a guinea pig for their new points scoring system and experimental law trials. That put these games below Under 20 rugby in their eyes.

You have to feel for the Romanians at this point. The Oaks had been strongly rumoured to be playing in Argentina for their first full test against a Tier 1 nation outside a World Cup for 10 years, only to see that spot go to Italy and instead remain stuck in the Nations Cup.

That decision made Romania the only top 18 ranked Tier 2 side not to play a Tier 1 side at all this year. In addition to that they also missed out on hosting the Pacific Islanders or Japan in November, meaning the fixture against Georgia in March was their only one this year against a side ranked above them.

And looking forward it's hard to see many available spots being available to them to get a chance to play top 10 opposition over this 4 year cycle.

As upcoming hosts of the next RWC and following their stunning tournament in England last year, Japan surely will be looking for an increase of high profile fixtures. An improving Georgian squad's recent results and dominance over the ENC see them ahead of Romania on the waiting list.

The Pacific Islanders as traditionally the strongest Tier 2 nations, and the North Americans as the one of the most important markets in world sport also put them above Romania.

And with only six Tier 1 vs Tier 2 match each November window, and only Pacific Nations Cup sides hosting Tier 1 sides in June, this leaves slim pickings in terms of opportunities for Romania to land a high profile match. There is still a decent opportunity to find maybe one, but it will most likely just be a one off some time in 2017 or 2018.

Unfortunately for Romania the longer the wait goes, the more the likelihood is that chances for more high profile games outside of a RWC could pass the core of this Oaks squad by, or come only towards the tail end of their careers.
Romania-Argentina XV, meciul jubileelor care decide castigatoarea World Rugby Nations Cup 2016.
Into his 11th year of international rugby, Catalin Fercu
has still only played 26 times against top 18 ranked sides.

A decade is a long time in rugby, so some of the Oaks most senior players like Mihai Lazar or Mihai Macovei have gone their entire international career having never faced a Tier 1 outside of a RWC (so basically just a couple opportunities to do so with a full week's rest).

This group of players have battled hard to keep Romanian rugby alive, delivering notable wins over Tonga and Canada. But now approaching their 30's, many of them have not played for high profile sides in big Champions Cup matches domestically, whilst internationally they have spent most of their prime years winning developmental tournaments like this. Of Catalin Fercu's 90 caps, 64 have come against either nations outside the top 18 or selection sides in the Nations Cup.

Romania may finish 2016 on paper with a pretty impressive win ratio, but this has not been an easy year for an Oaks rugby fan as they increasingly look like becoming the forgotten Tier 2 nation of world rugby. The lack of young talent coming through was highly apparent in their record loss in Tbilisi. Whilst this June whilst playing a tournament hardly anyone noticed, they had to watch their Antim Cup rivals grab headlines and continue to overshadow them with more landmark results both at senior and junior level this June, and announce plans to play Argentina next year.

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