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FEATURE Rugby Europe's finals day promises to be spectacle to remember

Rugby Europe's finals day promises to be spectacle to remember
4 months ago

Paris. City of light, capital of romance, home to Les Bleus, and host of the upcoming finals day of the Rugby Europe Championship. On Sunday, the French capital will welcome Georgia, Portugal, Spain, Romania, Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Poland for a full day of thrills and skills, with four finals to be played at the Stade Jean Bouin, the home ground of Stade Français.

This will be the first time all eight nations play in the same stadium on same day. A mix of World Cup fever and HSBC SVNS pizzazz, providing fans with a chance to immerse themselves in the most vibrant environment European rugby has to offer.

Florent Marty, Rugby Europe’s chief executive, spoke recently about the importance of finals day.

“It presents us with a unique opportunity to create a festival atmosphere and a celebration of European rugby with four high-level international matches,” he said. “To our knowledge this has never been done in XVs. It is also a unique opportunity to gather the whole rugby ecosystem, our member unions and institutional partners in one place. We would like to create an annual event that becomes a must-attend celebration of international rugby.”

Georgia claimed the Rugby Europe Championship crown for the sixth year running in 2023, beating Romania to win the Antim Cup in the process (Photo by Levan Verdzeuli/Getty Images)

With increasing interest in emerging nations, kindled by memorable moments at the World Cup, Rugby Europe wanted to back bold new ideas.

“That ‘Super Sunday’ concept has taken off really well,” Marty continued. “We’ve had an average of 4,000 spectators per game which is 15% up on last year, our broadcast partners are enjoying increased ratings and digital following is up 25% on Rugby Europe platforms. New broadcasters have joined the party such as Movistar in Spain or Pro Sieben in Germany. Rugby Europe has hit new heights.”

The day is also being live streamed on RugbyPass TV, all going to prove there’s an appetite for more experiences outside the major competitions. The REC needs more clicks, eyes, and public discourse, but even then, there will always be a funding challenge to keep the social media and broadcasting machines churning.

Rugby can only widen its gaze if there’s a consolidated fanbase looking for more games, players, data and storylines. With that in mind – and to halt the theoretical talk – let us when your appetite for finals day.

The Houdinis

Or, as REC fans say, the Niniashvilis, the Cardoso Pintos, the Guedes, Cians, and Klewinghauses. This competition has been a breeding ground for some of the most talented and yet least known illusionists in the business.

Davit Niniashvili only played in one of Georgia’s four matches due to injury but it was enough to remind everyone of the gold standard he has set since 2020. As the Lelos swept Romania aside to reach the grand final, Niniashvili contributed 130 running metres, three clean breaks, nine beaten defenders and two try assists from the left wing. The Lyon sprite has sorcery at his fingertips.

Manuel Cardoso Pinto is another who deserves a magician-certified diploma. His searing breaks have set Portugal on course for another REC final against old rivals and serial champions Georgia.

Manuel Cardoso Pinto has been a leading light for Portugal in recent years (Photo by Valentine CHAPUIS / AFP) (Photo by VALENTINE CHAPUIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Spool through the Lobos’ victory over Poland, and watch how Cardoso Pinto’s tap and go from his own 22 fuelled the Portuguese attack, shaking his team out of a numbing period. His tries against Romania and Spain helped Portugal to reach the showpiece, and as pundit Sam Katz enthused, “It wouldn’t be a REC semi-final without a Manuel Cardoso Pinto try.”

And what about a bit of German unpredictability? Nikolai Klewinghaus is chaos in a bottle, enriching the Schwarze Adler’s attack like an endless triple-A battery. His outrageous kick-and-chase try against Georgia in round one sent jaws crashing to the floor and the tournament’s reigning top dogs into a spin. Klewinghaus can lurk latent for 78 minutes before weaving his brilliance in two. Oh, and he can slot drop goals from the halfway line.

Finally, Spain’s Martiniano Cian. His tap dancing from the wing, and desire to seek out gaps and work in centre-field, is pivotal for the Leones. He eludes tacklers with the grace of a flamenco dancer. He tops the REC tallies for running metres and clean breaks but that’s barely half the story. Cian’s sensational running can set the Spanish attack in motion, paving the way to breaks, opportunities and tries.

The Bullies

A relentless enforcer can be the difference between winning a trophy and leaving empty-handed. Just look at how crucial Pieter-Steph du Toit was for the Springboks in the World Cup final, harrying and smashing any All Black who appeared in his crosshairs.

The REC has no shortage of juggernauts. Take Ilia Spanderashvili for example, the Black Lion loose forward who thundered into the tournament with all guns blazing, nailing dominant tackles, pilfering ball and gobbling up metres through contact. A Test rookie, he took to the international scene with amazing ease, especially in a team known for its back-row bruisers.

Spanderashvili has slotted in perfectly with such established talents as Beka Gorgadze, Luka Ivanishvili, Tornike Jalagonia, Giorgi Tsutskiridze, Otar Giorgadze and Beka Saghinadze, and he is a certainty to make Richard Cockerill’s starting XV on Sunday.

Ilia Spanderashvili has been a brilliant addition to Georgian ranks under Richard Cockerill (Photo by Levan Verdzeuli/Getty Images)

Spain may have fallen short of the final, but if you’re in the trenches, US Dax’s Brice Ferrer is exactly the type of team-mate you want beside you. His defensive brutality has halted many an attack, forced mistakes and kept Spain in the hunt when the chips are down. From 48 tackle attempts, Ferrer has missed just one.

If you like hits which can cause an earthquake, Justin Renc is your go-to man, as the elegant but physical German flanker has the potential to throw any player to the ground. It doesn’t matter the size or weight of an opponent, powerful tight-head prop or a swift full-back, Renc will hunt them down.

His eight dominant tackles, two try-savers, and five turnovers pushed Germany to reach the fifth-placed play-off, and all the more special when you consider he hasn’t played a single minute of club rugby since November owing to the Bundesliga’s winter break. A top-class prowler, and one who deserves a shot in the ProD2, Top 14, URC, Premiership, or Championship.

But if you are looking for a loose forward who can hit like a steam train and throw  offloads like a Flying Fijian, then Dutchman Wolf van Dijk should be your pick. The Netherlands have shown clear signs of growth to the point World Cup qualification is a realistic prospect, and it is because of players such as Van Dijk, who has evolved from one-dimensional bopper to multi-faceted athlete. His physicality, combined with a broad set of skills, makes him one of the most threatening operators in the REC.

The Clairvoyants

There are the dazzlers and the heavies, and then there are the string-pullers. Those who run the show, who possess the gift of clairvoyance.

One of them is Tomás Appleton, Portugal’s skipper and one of the most respected players in the REC. His in-game knowledge has been key to the Portuguese success and their stunning World Cup win over Fiji, as he sets up most of the attacking plays from centre. In the semi-final win over Spain, two of Portugal’s three tries had Appleton’s fingerprints all over them, creating opportunities and manipulating defences. His tactical value to Portugal goes well beyond his velvety offloads and bone-crushing tackles.

Romania’s Alin Conache was given exhilarating opportunities at last year’s Rugby World Cup (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Alin Conache is one of the newcomers. The young Romanian half-back was given an opportunity at the World Cup and earned his place in the starting line-up mostly due to how swiftly he positions his team to take advantage of the opposition defence. He will surely be pivotal in the third-place duel with Spain.

Belgian fly-half Hugo de Francq is another who catches the eye. He scored Belgium’s try in the remarkable opening-round win over Portugal, but that isn’t the only reason he is on this list. Beyond his game smarts, polished kicking skills, and game management, De Francq is a fierce voice in the Belgian camp, playing human chess with his team-mates. For Belgium to avoid relegation from the REC, they will need the fly-half to be at his best.

The Voices

What would that scene from Jurassic Park when Alan Grant turns Ellie Sattler’s head to gaze up at the brachiosaurus be without John Williams’ composition?

The REC is much more than those who step onto the pitch. The broadcasters who lend their voices to the games daub the competition with splashes of verbal colour, illuminating the unforgettable tries and nerve-jangling contests.

Jamie Lyall, Rugby World Cup commentator and RugbyPass contributor, called REC matches for the first time this year.

“This tournament is an incredible tapestry of rugby cultures, styles and cities and it deserves a higher billing in the media landscape.

“The standard of rugby is excellent. The rivalries – particularly the ancient Iberian grudge between Portugal and Spain – are deep-rooted and wonderfully authentic. This year alone we have witnessed scenes in Mons, Dessau and Lisbon to match almost anything on show in the more established competitions.

“There are so many success stories, from Georgia’s relentless excellence and Tier One scalps to Portugal’s stunning achievements and phenomenal attacking style at the World Cup, and those pushing hard to emulate them.

“Bubbling beneath the slick veneer of the Six Nations is a truly captivating rugby ecosystem. Give it a chance. You won’t be disappointed.”

Davit Niniashvili congratulates Georgian record try-scorer Aka Tabutsadze after touching down in the semi-final win over Romania (Photo by Rugby Europe)

Dave Rogers has worked on Rugby Europe’s coverage for several years and when asked whether the REC has potential to reach new levels, his answer is emphatic.

“Yes, yes it does. Whether you are an old romantic or are looking for a young fleeting romance, the REC can make you fall in love with it.

“Romania, for example, had blockbuster games against Wales, and other Tier One sides in the 1970s and 80s, they have their roots deep in that history. Then there’s the Portuguese romance. I remember going to Lisbon with my father to watch Wales defeat Portugal by 100 points in 1995, and look where they are now. The brand of rugby they’ve cultivated and the talent they’ve been producing is a real testament to their success.

“You have also redemption stories, and long-living rivalries. Spain are a team that has been unlucky in rugby love, but who are special. Mario Pichardie, their new captain, fell back in love with rugby thanks to his country after a disheartening experience in the Wasps RFC.

“Then there’s Georgia, who are like a Shakespearian love history. Unbeatable for thirty games, and still looking to add more victories and trophies.”

Justin Middleton, who has made his name in the All-Ireland League and Rugby Europe Super Cup, discovered the REC back in 2022 and called last year’s final.

“Those who mainly follow teams in the world’s top 10 will be intrigued by the passion displayed by REC nations and how motivated they are in continuously working to take rugby to new heights in their countries. These nations play in a manner which upholds rugby’s core values and it is more than a joy to watch.”

World Rugby HSBC SVNS, English Premiership and BUCS Super Rugby commentator Joe Byrnes shares Middleton’s views.

“The entire landscape is growing. In the Super Cup the Black Lion is becoming a brand for success. The Lusitanos and Brussels Devils are some of the reasons Portugal and Belgium have done so well at the top. There’s a sense of optimism around these matches, driving hundreds of new fans to the competition, to support the teams. As a commentator it’s apparent how it has grown.”

And so to Paris. The plots and the narrative, the stars and the supporters, will converge on the iconic Stade Jean Bouin this Sunday. A unique spectacle. A seminal day. Don’t miss it.

The Portugal v Georgia Final will be free and streaming live on RugbyPass TV  (exceptions Georgia, Portugal, Spain, Germany, Andorra and France) 


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1 Comment
Michele 130 days ago

Thanks for this article! Away in the US, with the Six Nations going on, this was not on my radar. I assumed this tournament wouldn’t be available to me, but I see it’s covered for free on the Rugby Europe website and a few matches on RugbyPassTV! My weekend just got even better!!!

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