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FEATURE 'It is really difficult to watch because I know many of these guys and they are good people'

'It is really difficult to watch because I know many of these guys and they are good people'
8 months ago

Rugby has experienced a rapid pace of change in the past decade, but this Rugby World Cup is also underlining how many proud rugby countries are being left behind.

Questions are being asked, inevitably, about how huge gaps in quality impact the ability of the World Cup to use its global media audience to showcase all that is good in the sport. Namibia have conceded 219 points in three games, Chile 156 from the same number and Romania 158 in just two matches.

Chile head coach Pablo Lemoine, who played for Uruguay in the 1999 and 2003 World Cups, said after the 71-0 reverse at the hands of England he couldn’t be disappointed in his team’s performance, because it was merely indicative of the gap between the nations in terms of rugby development – England having played in every World Cup to date and this being Chile’s first.

“We are coming here and we are part of the show but we can’t play the game,” he said. “We haven’t played that kind of game in the cycle between the World Cups.

“It is like a show, in that on the one hand we are the clowns and on the other there are the owners of the circus. I have already found this to be repulsive.

“The truth is that I have been in this for years and we have been asking for the same thing for years: to have these experiences before playing at World Cups. 71-0 is a terrible thing… [and] if we look at the numbers it will be very difficult to continue growing. I hope that changes because it’s not good for the game or the supporters.”

World Rugby has sought to address this issue by providing significant funding to Tier Two nations to bring in coaching expertise from Tier One countries, and the funding support for pre-World Cup camps, to try and give all teams the same access to players and preparation, has grown significantly. But clearly, more needs to be done.

Chile were hammered 71-0 by England in their third Rugby World Cup pool match. (Photo by PA)

Romania are different to Chile in that they have qualified for all ten World Cups, though were disqualified from the 2019 event for fielding an ineligible player. They have won six tournament matches, the last against Canada in 2015, when their worst previous defeat was 44-10 to Ireland.

Now, however, they are preparing to face Scotland on Saturday in Lille hoping simply to deny the Scots their aim of surpassing Ireland’s 82- and South Africa’s 76-point totals. They are also intent on taking their own points tally into double figures, having scored just eight so far, which included the brief but wonderful highlight of opening the scoring against Ireland with a fine counter-attack try.

Older readers who recall the ‘Oaks’ claiming fine wins in the 1980s over France (eight), Italy (16), Wales, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Japan and … Scotland, twice – and almost beating the All Blacks – might wonder how it has come to this. These were full Test wins, and the victories over Scotland came when the Scots were at their peak, having won the old Five Nations with Grand Slams. A small handful of Grand Slammers were missing in Bucharest, but the majority were there in 1984 and still in 1991, and were duly humbled 28-22 and 18-12 respectively.

A minority who love their rugby would prefer to still be under a communist regime, and I actually had to change my coaching style when I went there.

Scotland knows more about Romanian rugby than most. Former Scotland coach and director of coaching Richie Dixon had several spells leading development in Romania, while also coaching Georgia. Dixon is currently assisting the Oaks in France on a consultancy basis. He was followed by Welshman and former Edinburgh coach Lynn Howells, and further pro coaches in Rob Moffat, Andy Robinson and Steve Scott. That latter duo only finished with Romania a year ago to join the Bath coaching staff.

Moffat recalls his time with Romania fondly. He keeps in touch with current players and management, and such is his affection for the country he found himself singing their national anthem when they played last week. But he admits his frustration at seeing their regression laid bare in this World Cup.

“It is really difficult to watch because I know many of these guys, and they are good people; really, really good people,” he said. “It’s unfair.”

“The Romanians are passionate, and they know they have no real chance on Saturday but they will never take for granted playing for Romania. They are very proud people, and whatever happens Scotland can rest assured they will fight until the last seconds of the game. It will be physical, they will target the set-piece, especially the scrum, and the Scottish boys will know they’ve been in a game.

“The reality, however, is that Scotland will win the game comfortably because Romania now have very little experience of playing this speed of game, and so, hopefully they’ll show that they can play rugby, as they did against Ireland, but if Scotland play at pace they will struggle to cope. The game has moved away from them, unfortunately.”

So, why is the gulf now so great? According to Moffat, it is a mix of culture, politics and traditional attitudes in the country, and rugby’s leading nations turning their back on them.

Rob Moffat worked under Lynn Howells, centre, who oversaw Romania’s last Rugby World Cup win in 2015. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

He points to a belief internally among older members of the Romanian rugby set-up, that those days of competing with the leading nations in the world will simply come around again, that it’s a cycle. Those glorious rugby days came in altogether more oppressive times in Romania, when Nicolae Ceaucescu and communism ruled the country, and there is an uncomfortable truth that the sport was far stronger when channelled through the army and police ranks, players were ordered to train daily and the success and reflected glory of national sports teams was a priority for political leaders.

Since the Romanian Revolution of 1989, the country’s people have enjoyed greater freedoms but Romanian rugby has slipped into an amateur environment, at a time when rugby has turned professional and is now moving at great speed.

A former PE teacher and youth coach, as well as club and pro-team coach, Moffat has unique insight to the Romanian development paths – or lack of paths – and explains how the problems run deeper than purely a lack of games against Tier One nations.

“Yes, they need more competitive matches between World Cups, but that’s only part of it,” he says.

“They only came out of communism in 1989, and for someone my age that’s more than half your life under that controlling regime, so their older guys tend to hark back to the days when Romania beat Scotland and other countries, and believe it will come round again. A minority who love their rugby would prefer to still be under a communist regime, and I actually had to change my coaching style when I went there. Romanian players told me: ‘Rob, just tell them what to do; be hard on them. That’s how they’ve been brought up and it’s what they respond to.’ They actually laughed at me when I brought out tackle bags; they like to bash each other up in training – to do otherwise is soft.

“But, culturally, there isn’t the same funding of sport facilities anymore and their youth and schools rugby is not great. They have potential, undoubtedly, because they love their sport and have big men, but they’re not getting any good rugby early enough, and when good players do emerge, mostly big forwards, they leave Romania for France to earn a living.

“Yes, they have six professional clubs which sounds impressive when you compare it to Scotland’s two, but in reality that just means they are paying players money, and not a lot. In terms of how professional they really are in comparison with pro rugby around the world… well, it’s very different.

We had two or three guys in the room just shouting and screaming at Lynn and I. I couldn’t believe it.

“As a result, they have a very short-term outlook – everything is built on the next game, and no-one looks beyond that. They just want to win, and if they win they’re happy but if they lose it’s a national disaster. When I was there with Lynn we beat Georgia, Canada twice, the USA, Uruguay, only lost narrowly to Japan in Japan, in crazy heat, and you could see players developing and confidence building. But we lost one game against Germany – who were not a bad side to be fair, but we were expected to win – and when we came back to Romania it was a disaster because guys still have expectations from 40 years ago. We had two or three guys in the room just shouting and screaming at Lynn and I. Lynn had seen it before, and had warned me, but I couldn’t believe it.

“I was honest with them and said ‘you guys get too emotional when we win, particularly when we haven’t played well, and you get too carried away when we lose’. It’s all very reactionary. So plans would be thrown out, players dropped, and we were told to try other things, on the back of one defeat. Older players were encouraged to play beyond their time and time wasn’t given to younger players to develop because it was about results now.”

There is a worrying sense of pointlessness and lack of hope emanating from Tier Two countries at this World Cup, as elucidated by Lemoine, and Moffat admits he struggles to see how it will change in Romania. But, he does believe that a refreshed approach by World Rugby, supported by the leading nations, in response to the major reverses at this tournament, could pave the way for a brighter future.

In 2006, World Rugby (then the IRB) launched a Nations Cup in Portugal and then moved to Bucharest, and over the next few years Argentina, Scotland, South Africa, France, Ireland, Italy and Fiji supported it by sending A or ‘Emerging’ squads, which proved a valuable tool for developing their future internationals. Over the years, they would play against the Test sides of Romania, Russia, Uruguay, Georgia, Spain, Portugal and Namibia, and the summer tournament provided the Tier Two teams with valuable warm-up matches for the 2011 and 2015 World Cups.

Romania have shipped over 150 points in their opening Rugby World Cup fixtures. (Photo by PA)

There was also a brief Tbilisi Cup in Georgia, but between those tournaments the leading nations had begun to withdraw from it, the Scottish Rugby Union (income circa £50m) just one citing lack of funding as an issue, and it became a Tier Two competition.

Moffat was recently awarded a belated Scotland cap for playing against Japan in 1977, and how that country has grown and developed with funding and regular Tier One opposition in the past 20 years is almost the complete opposite to Romania’s story.

“Funding and being supported by the world rugby community is key,” the Scot adds. “Those IRB Nations tournaments were great opportunities for the likes of Romania to play at a higher level, to spotlight rugby in their country for a bit, and inspire younger players, coaches and supporters.

“When I see Romania play [in France] it’s just unfair because they no longer play that quality of game. They play Georgia, Portugal, Spain etc in the Rugby Europe Championship, but that’s a few levels down from where the top 10 nations are now. Other countries are moving on, but they’re treading water and it’s a real shame.

“If we could get them playing against A teams again every year, that would be a start, and would help to earn these great rugby people in those countries support from outside and inside their country. Without that, sadly, I can’t see how they will progress over the next four or eight years.

“I’ll be supporting Scotland this weekend, of course, but I’m planning to go back to Bucharest soon and I’ll be hoping the Romanian boys do their country proud too.”

Actions always speak louder than words, and we can only celebrate all that is good about the sport if World Rugby ensure the messages from these pool mismatches are acted upon.

Comments

7 Comments
K
Kenward K. 265 days ago

Interesting. Thank you.

C
Ciaran 265 days ago

I think Tier Two is too broad a term, because the problems for one are not necessarily the concerns for another.

The regression of Romania, Namibia and Canada is worrying. I’m not sure what the issue is, but watching the first two in this World Cup, they don’t seem to have the structures or vision for how they’ll play the game.

On the other side of Tier Two, you have Uruguay and Portugal, who have approached the tournament not just with passion but verve and ambition. Chile have lost badly yet have shown real signs of innovation and vision. They are further behind in their development but you’d anticipate improvement if they make the tournament in four years.

I’d guess there are cultural and structural issues at play which need renovation in the first group. The second group need more consistent exposure to teams at the top level which won’t happen due to this new tournament the Tier One teams shortsightedly established.

M
Michael 265 days ago

You made the point about army and school rugby. A possible pathway could be through the university system, a team in their pro league and a services team, but that probably would need political backing. An Olympic sevens program and entering a team in the World u20 trophy, could be a way to develop talent. That's something World Rugby could pursue. As for the A team idea, that's the way to increase top level exposure, plus closer links with Scotland a tier 1 nation. Players playing for Glasgow or Edinburgh. The Super rugby Europe league has potential.

r
rodney 265 days ago

You need a 2 tier world cup with smaller pools so the tournament would take half as long and the games would be mostly between similar strength sides. Far more entertaining than watching one side score a 100 points.

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