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The Rugby Europe Championship deserves your attention

By Denis Frank
Giorgi Kveseladze and Beka Saginadze celebrate try by Akaki Tabutsadze of Georgia during the Rugby Europe International Championship round 5 match between Georgia and Spain at Dinamo Arena on March 20, 2022 in Tbilisi, Georgia. (Photo by Levan Verdzeuli/Getty Images)

In the shadows of the Guiness Six Nations this weekend also marks the opening of the Rugby Europe Championship. The on-field drama and excitement of the second best international Rugby competition in the northern hemisphere might not exactly rival what’s on display at the Six Nations.

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However, it most definitely deserves more attention and will have many insights to offer, especially in a World Cup year and with three of its participants also competing in the global rugby showpiece this Autumn in France.

The format of Rugby Europe’s premier competition has changed significantly for 2023 and no longer mirrors that of the Six Nations. Up until last year, five rounds of fixtures were played parallel to the Six Nations, with each of the six REC participants facing all other competitors once, while home-field advantage alternated year after year.

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Now the competition is merely held on the same weekends, as the Six Nations, but has been entirely revamped with now eight participating national teams divided into two pools of four. After three round robin matches, the top two teams of each pool will determine the winner in two rounds of knock-out games, culminating in the grand final at a neutral venue on March 18th.

Meanwhile the bottom two sides of each pool will play two rounds of knock-out fixtures for fifth place. The three newly promoted teams are Belgium, Poland and Germany. They will face a tough proposition against the more established nations, while Russia remains shunned, due to the country’s ongoing war in Ukraine.

The current make-up of the league will be kept until the end of the 2024 championship when the worst-performing side of the combined 2023 / 2024 table will be relegated to Rugby Europe’s second-tier tournament called the Trophy.

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Rugby Europe’s efforts to transform its most popular competition and broaden its appeal were met with a mixed reception amongst players, fans and officials.

While Spain prop Jon Zabala welcomes the “positive change”, some of the mainstays of the competition voiced their dissatisfaction off the record about the reduced number of pre-scheduled fixtures and the neutral venue for the grand final.

All participants agree that planning the final two fixtures on very short notice ends up being more of a logistical challenge. Ticketing revenues might be jeopardised due to the short notice of the semi-final fixtures, while the natural final venue also equals less gate receipts for the two top teams.

Georgia’s captain Merab Sharikadze, the vastly experienced centre who captained his team to a historic win in Cardiff last November, does not mind Rugby Europe shaking the format up, but is critical of the scheduling: “The disappointing part is that the final venue is already set and it won’t be in Georgia, which will upset our supporters.“

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Manuel Wilhelm, High Performance Director & CEO of the German Rugby Union acknowledges that “for teams like Germany this format is more attractive, as it gives us the chance to gradually improve towards the level of the top teams“.

However, the former international second-row forward also cautions that the short run-up ahead of the semi-final will pose a significant financial strain on top of being a logistical challenge to all participants, except for the well-funded and staffed Georgian union.

Belgium’s new forwards coach Mouritz Botha, who once again teams up with Mike Ford for the Black Devils, sees the format changes in a positive light: “It’s great that the competition has expanded slightly. This will make European Rugby stronger. Eight teams will now be able to play very competitive rugby and develop as a result.”

Rugby Europe Championship
Mouritz Botha

Despite the changes implemented, from a sporting point of view Georgia remain the team to beat in the competition. That does not come as a surprise, given that they bagged eleven Championship titles over the last twelve seasons. The Lelos are looking to defend their title with one eye on the World Cup later this year, where they will face Wales, Australia, Fiji and Portugal.

Lelos captain Merab Sharikadze insists that Georgia can improve once more this year and sets out the goal of more than just retaining the title for the REC: “The main objective in this tournament is to concentrate on ourselves, keeping the standards high and even improve, compared to how we were playing in November.“

Missing out on a match-up with northern neighbour Russia, traditionally the biggest rival for Georgia, will be a disappointment for the Lelos’ fans, as centre Sharikadze explains. “The Russia game was always the biggest part for the Georgia supporters and one hundred percent they will miss that adrenaline, but Georgian fans are also hoping for us to participate in bigger tournaments and hopefully one day we can achieve that!“

Spain, Georgia’s closest rival over the last couple of seasons, are starting from scratch yet again after their world cup qualification hopes were crushed for a second time, after being handed a points deduction for fielding an ineligible player.

Ironically it was South-African born hooker Gavin van den Berg, who played just over 30 minutes against the Netherlands in a match that Spain comfortably won by 43:0 in the 2022 edition of the tournament, as well as his involvement in the corresponding fixture the year before, despite not fulfilling the residency criteria, which cost Spain a rendezvous with van den Berg’s native South Africa.

Leaving behind the disappointment of failing to qualify for the world cup in neighbouring France, los Leones are now looking to re-build. Prop Zabala sees this year’s Rugby Europe Championship as an opportunity to integrate some younger players coming through. Overall Spanish rugby is geared towards a second appearance at the Rugby World Cup after 1999.

Romania meanwhile profited from Spain’s misfortune and will face off with the Springboks, Ireland, Scotland and Tonga in France later this year. Captain Mihai Macovei, who became Romania’s fifth test centurion last year, says that his team can win the competition.

In 2017 Romania became the last team other than Georgia to win the REC and the vastly experienced flanker Macovei wants to once again accomplish that feat. Being the veteran of two world cups he knows what competing in the global showcase of the sport entails.

But the majority of the oaks squad has not had the privilege, as Romania missed out on qualification for the very first time in 2019. Hence the 36-year-old sees this year’s tournament as the perfect preparation for the even bigger task.

Portugal are proof that the vast gap in quality between Rugby Europe’s premier competition and the feeder league called the Trophy can be bridged. In 2019 Os Lobos paved their way into the Championship by beating Germany in the promotion-relegation match by a single score and having to defend on their own try line with the clock in the red.

In a 2020 competition rendered chaotic due to the impact of the global pandemic, Portugal managed to stay up by edging out a home win against Belgium and surprising everyone by defeating Romania.

In 2022 the side coached by former France winger Patrice Lagisquet remained competitive and pulled off a massive upset by securing a draw versus Georgia away, but just fell short of beating Romania and Spain away.

Portugal
Portugal players celebrate winning the RWC 2023 Final Qualification Tournament match between USA and Portugal at The Sevens Stadium on November 18, 2022 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Martin Dokoupil – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

These results would have meant that Portugal just missed out on qualifying for the 2023 Rugby World Cup. But due to Spain’s self-inflicted misfortune, Portugal proceeded to the Repechage, where a last-gasp win against the USA Eagles guided them to their second World Cup appearance.

Winger Tomás Appleton now insists that Portugal are “eager to prove our value and show once again that our spot at the World Cup is well deserved“. This year will also be important to raise the game’s status in football-mad Portugal.

Belgium won promotion last year by topping the Rugby Europe Trophy ahead of Poland and Germany and should be the strongest of the newly promoted sides.

The Black Devils start their campaign with an entirely new coaching set-up. Former England defence and Bath head coach Mike Ford once again teams up with former Saracens and England lock Mouritz Botha – as they did in 2018 and 2019 for Germany.

Ford Burgess England 2015 World Cup
George and Mike Ford (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images)

Botha as the forwards coach is well aware of the demands, as he knows the league well. “It will be a step up from the trophy, but we see ourselves as a team that belong in this league and we want to prove that.”

Botha emphasises that he sees “a lot of potential“ in Belgian Rugby and in conjunction with the union’s forward-thinking board this just might be the “recipe for success“.

Germany meanwhile originally missed out on promotion by a whisker. Being even on points with Poland and with the better points difference to their name, the Black Eagles were bound to fall short on their goal of returning to the Championship, due to having lost the head-to-head on a bitterly cold November night in Gdynia on the Polish Baltic Sea coast.

However, with Russia being disqualified, the Germans were a late addition to the Championship. Once again playing the likes of Georgia, Spain and Romania will be “an adventure“, as coach Mark Kuhlmann explains.

Germany’s pack test Samoa in 2019

This time the Germans will have to make do without the substantial backing of Hans-Peter Wild. The billionaire owner of Capri Sun had bankrolled German rugby until a fallout with the Union in 2018. These days the Heidelberg native turned Swiss resident prefers to put his money into the Top 14 club Stade Français.

German forwards coach Kehoma Brenner, also a native of the southwestern university town of Heidelberg, says the Black Eagles have to “get creative“ to make up for the shortfalls of being a mostly amateur nation. “Will, hard work and toughness“ are the keys to Germany staying up, according to the former Eagles’ flanker.

Poland and the Netherlands find themselves in a similar situation to the Germans. Drawing their squad mostly from the amateur domestic leagues, with some foreign-based professionals propping up the squad.

The Netherlands already gained promotion to the Rugby Europe Championship in 2020, but failed to win a single fixture since. Therefore Dutch flanker Spike Salman explains: “We want to – and will – show that we belong in this competition and that we can compete in it.“

While the battle at the top is all about who can beat Georgia, the battle to avoid relegation seems more open. The three new additions to the league, as well as the Netherlands, seem on a similar footing. Only by staying in the Rugby Europe Championship can these teams can dream of making the next step –  Qualifying for the Rugby World Cup 2027 in Australia.

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Shaylen 4 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

These guys will be utility players Nick it cannot be helped because coaches cannot help themselves. Rassie looks at players like these and sees the ability to cover multiple positions without losing much. It allows the 6-2 or 7-1. He wont change his coaching style or strategy for one player. At provincial level players like these are indispensable. If there is an injury to your starting 12 but your back up 12 is a bit iffy then a coach is going to go with the back up 10 who is gold and who can play a good 12. Damian Willemse for the Springboks is an obvious case, for the Stormers its the same. Dobson plays him at 12 or 15, with Gelant in the team he plays 12 but if Gelant goes down he doesnt go for his back up 15, he just puts Willemse there. With Frawley its the same at international and provincial level. He just slots in wherever. Frans Steyn made a career out of it. He was much maligned though as a youngster as he never fully developed into any role. He then went to Japan and France to decide for himself what kind of player he was, put on muscle and retained his big boot, ran over players and booted the ball long and came back into the Springboks after about 3 years away and was then certain about how he wanted to play the game no matter what position. Coaches cannot help themselves because they only want what is best for their teams and that means putting your most talented players on even if it means you cause them some discomfort. Sometimes players need to decide how they want to play the game and then adapt that to every position and let the coach decide how they want to use them.

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J
Jon 10 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

I think the main problem here is the structure of both countries make up. They are going to have very similar.. obstacles(not problems). It will just be part of the evolution of their rugby and they’ll need to find a way to make this versatility more advantageous than specialization. I think South Africa are well on the way to that end already, but Ireland are more likely to have a hierarchical approach and move players around the provinces. Ioane is going to be more than good enough to lock up one of those available positions for more than a few years I believe though. Morgan would definitely be a more long term outlook. Sacha to me has the natural footwork of a second five. Not everything is about winning, if a team has 3 players that want to play 10s just give them all a good go even if its to the detriment of everyone, this is also about dreams of the players, not just the fans. This is exactly how it would be in an amateur club setting. Ultimately some players just aren’t suited to any one position. The example was of a guy that had size and speed, enough pace to burn, power to drive, and speed to kick and pass long, but just not much else when it came to actual rugby (that matched it). New Zealand has it’s own example with Jordie Barrett and probably shows what Reece Hodge could have been if the game in Australia had any administration. Despite the bigger abundance of talent in NZ, Jordie was provided with consistent time as a fullback, before being ushered in as a second five. Possibly this was due to his blood, and another might not have been as fortunate, but it is what it was, a complete contrast to how Hodge was used in Australia, were he could have had any position he wanted. When it comes down to it though, much like these young fellas, it will be about what they want, and I think you’ll find they’ll be like Hodge and just want to be as valuable to the team as they can and play wherever. It’s not like 63 International Cap is a hard thing to live with as a result of that decision!

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