Romania in action against Georgia in last year's REC. Xinhua News Agency/PA Images
grow the game

'You've got to look at rugby and ask, 'Where do we want the sport to be in 10 years' time?''

Ex-England boss Andy Robinson is now the head coach of Romania in the Rugby Europe Championship.

SPORT IS RENDERED rather insignificant when we see what’s happening in Ukraine as Russia’s invasion continues but sport rolls on anyway.

The Six Nations could have breathed a sigh of relief over the past week that Russia aren’t one of the superpowers of rugby, meaning there has been no disruption to the top-tier competition in Europe.

But the second-tier Rugby Europe Championship [REC] is now facing upheaval due to Russia’s suspension from all international rugby. 

The 2021 and 2022 campaigns of the REC have doubled up as a means of deciding two European qualifiers for next year’s Rugby World Cup, with the top two sides from the combined table advancing to France 2023. The second-placed team will go into Ireland’s pool.

So Russia being suspended with three of their games still left to play and having already played seven games over the last two years against World Cup hopefuls makes things very complicated for Rugby Europe and World Rugby.

They will confirm a decision in the coming days around what happens next, meaning the rest of the REC sides are waiting to find out exactly how their World Cup prospects have been affected.

Ex-England and Scotland boss Andy Robinson is now the head coach of Romania, who are firmly in the mix for the second of the World Cup spots along with Portugal and Spain. Georgia will seal the top slot barring a total disaster in their final two games.

First and foremost, Robinson has been as shocked as everyone at events in neighbouring Ukraine.

“From my side, we’ve got to have solidarity with Ukraine, all the people there, and the sports teams,” says Robinson. “The key rugby values are integrity, respect, and solidarity and I think we’ve got to be able to show that to the people of Ukraine.

“A number of sports teams have come through Romania, some of the football teams’ Brazilian players, for example, have travelled through Romania to fly out of Bucharest to get home.

“It hurts everyone and creates fear when you see what’s happening in Ukraine with Romania so close. The players are in shock, everyone is. It’s happened so quickly. Moldova is close, on the Ukraine border as well, so there is a little bit of concern about what might happen next.”

andy-robinson Andy Robinson is Romania's head coach. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Last Monday, World Rugby announced that Russia had been suspended from all international rugby and yesterday, the governing body confirmed that its executive committee and the 2023 Rugby World Cup board were considering what to do with the REC. A decision will be communicated next week.

Robinson is of the view that Russia’s results over the last two years should all be deemed null and void, but he accepts that this is complex for World Rugby.

“The Russians have been sanctioned and they should be removed from the competition,” says Robinson.

“If I look at other sports, if somebody is withdrawn from a competition, should all their results be null and void? That’s something that has to be looked at because they shouldn’t be allowed to play their last three matches.

“When we played them in Sochi last year, Russia won the game but then their hooker got banned for taking steroids. In some sports, like athletics, you get given the medals for that, don’t you?

“Russia have been suspended but personally I think they should be withdrawn from the competition. I think that would be the right decision. If you’re withdrawing someone from a competition, then all results should be null and void.”

Whatever happens with the Russians, Robinson and co. are firmly focused on next Saturday’s home clash with Georgia, who have dominated the REC over the past decade.

The battle for the second spot in the World Cup will be thrilling over the next two weekends, with Spain hosting Portugal next Sunday, then travelling to Georgia the following week. Romania conclude their campaign with a clash against the Netherlands, against whom they will be expected to rack up a big score.

Robinson is hopeful Romanian authorities will allow a full crowd of 8,000 into the impressive new Stadionul Arcul de Triumf venue in Bucharest next weekend, which was first used for his side’s clash with Argentina last summer when they were unlucky to lose 24-17 after a brilliant game.

Robinson took over in 2019 after The Oaks failed to reach the World Cup for the first time and has enjoyed leading the rebuild. He has pushed the attacking side of their game and looked to renew their longstanding traditions of set-piece power. Consistency has been a big aim and November wins over Uruguay and Tonga were signs that it’s coming.

Robinson still lives in Bath but travels over to Romania for training camps and Tests. With Covid restrictions easing, he is now also able to move around the country to visit the six clubs in the professional SuperLiga competition. He has a few Romanian phrases but also uses players or coaches as translators in meetings.

spanish-team-beats-romanian-team-in-european-rugby Romania were beaten by Spain last weekend in the REC. DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

The Englishman is a huge advocate of the quality of rugby on offer in the REC.

“The standard of rugby is really high and it’s improving,” he says. “Portugal have been developing so fast and they play a really good brand of rugby. Patrice Lagisquet [the ex-France wing] has inspired them in the way they play.

“Spain beat us last weekend, there was a really good balance between their forwards and backs in attack, with a really good set-piece. That was impressive.

“We’ve been trying to grow our game and develop the way we play. Lots of the Portuguese and Spanish players play in the French leagues, so they’ve been able to develop their game. Lots of our players now aren’t playing in France, so it’s trying to develop them with only four or five big games a year.

“It’s been harder to grow their skills, they’re actually learning in the international games. They’ve really taken that on in their understanding of how to play international rugby because it is really tough at all levels.

“The growth of Spain, Portugal, seeing Georgia perform, Russia have potential, you’ve now got five teams that are of developing quality in this competition which is great for European rugby.”

There has been plenty of talk about promotion into and relegation from the Six Nations again in recent times. Robinson doesn’t offer a strong opinion on that subject but he would love to see more games for the REC nations against the top countries in the world.

He points to Romania’s experience against Argentina last summer as extremely valuable and feels that Georgia gained a huge amount from being part of the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup.

“At the moment, there’s a gulf between Italy and Georgia but really we don’t know what the gulf is because they don’t play often enough,” says Robinson. “It would be good for them to play more often.

“The teams below Georgia are getting closer to Georgia. Spain got close, we were level with them with 20 minutes to go, Portugal got a draw over there this year.

“For us, playing Argentina – the level you have to get to, the way you’re punished more for the mistakes you make, the concentration for 80 minutes, the intensity of the games – you’ve got to play at that level to get used to it.”

spromania-bucharest-rugby-european-championship-2022 Romania's Jason Tomane [right, the brother of ex-Leinster centre, Joe] in action against Portugal. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

World Rugby is set to meet this month to revive the Nations Championship concept, the aim being to make the July and November Test windows more meaningful as part of an annual global competition.

The proposal for that competition is that the Six Nations and Rugby Championship sides would be joined in the top division by Japan and Fiji, meaning that the likes of Georgia and Romania would be in the second tier.

Given that promotion/relegation still seems extremely unlikely for the Six Nations even as part of that possible new global competition, Robinson isn’t a fan.

“I’m concerned about that for the likes of Romania, Georgia, Spain, Portugal,” he said.

“You’ve got to have those high-level matches consistently. You’ve got to look at rugby in 10 years’ time, and ask where do we want the sport to be in 10 years’ time?”

All of that is for further down the line, but right now Robinson is consumed by the massive clash with Georgia next weekend in Bucharest.

World Rugby’s decision on Russia’s games is out of their hands.

“We can only control what we can control,” says Robinson. “We’re playing at home against Georgia, we’ve had a good home record in the last year.

“The last time Romania beat Georgia was at home in 2017 so the players will be full of confidence that they can rebound from the Spain game.

“We haven’t performed for the 80 minutes in any of our games this year. You need to do that against a side like Georgia.”

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