Namibia hadn't won a Nations Cup match before, but left Romania with the title - Photo: Dan Marinescu

Namibia had many reasons to be cheerful heading into the fifth IRB Nations Cup in June, but few would have tipped them for the title despite their impressive Rugby World Cup qualification performances over the previous 12 months.

Returning to the six-team tournament following a three-year absence, Namibia had propped up the table without a win on their previous appearance. In 2010, they were seeking to address that statistic and build on their Africa Cup success the previous year.

Namibia certainly did not have it all their own way in Bucharest and had to come from behind to beat hosts Romania 21-17 in their opening match. In fact it was only an extraordinary try by Llewellyn Winkler at the death that sealed the victory, the right wing side stepping and dummying his way through a bewildered defence.

Four days later Namibia had to endure a late rally by defending champions Scotland A to triumph 23-20. Scrum half Eugene Jantjies stood out in an exciting backline, but it was Namibia’s defence in the last 10 minutes which proved decisive, repelling wave after wave of Scottish attacks.

These two victories meant that Namibia had the title in their sights as they went into their final match with fellow Rugby World Cup 2011 qualifiers Georgia. However, they weren’t the only ones as Italy A had also won their two matches, edging the Argentina Jaguars 22-20 on day one and then Georgia 21-3 with fly half Luciano Orquera the star of the show against the latter, scoring all of his side’s points.

Tale of two halves

Namibia were first to take the field on the final day at the stadionul National Arcul de Triumf and their encounter with Georgia was one of tremendous physicality. Georgia were reliant on the rock solid defence that had seen them beat Scotland A on day one, and it was the Lelos who led 13-0 at half time.

However, the loss of Georgia’s inspirational captain Tedo Zibzibadze to a dislocated elbow and then his fellow centre Revaz Gigauri to injury allowed Namibia to grow in confidence, driven on by their captain and star player Jacques Burger.

Burger himself crossed the whitewash first, followed by his impressive and fleet-footed teammate Chrysander Botha at full back, who secured the 21-16 victory with a second try to complete a remarkable comeback.

Namibia coach Johan Diergaardt knows that his revitalised team must now use the Nations Cup as a springboard to achieving even better things in 2011. “This is not the end, it’s just the beginning as this team has a lot of potential to become a great team. We are thankful for what we have,” he insisted.

“At half time it was a matter of putting all the things together again and telling the boys that we can actually make it. They just had to stop making mistakes, silly mistakes, and start working harder. I do believe they showed a lot of character after the break and I’m feeling great about this team.”

Namibia had to endure a few nervous hours to see if the victory was enough to secure them a first Nations Cup title, but there was no need for a calculator to determine the champions after Italy A fell at the final hurdle against a resilient new-look Romania, losing a thrilling encounter 27-22.


Defeat of Italy A allowed Romania to finish as runners-up to Namibia - Photo: Dan Marinescu

Romania adapted their style of play and, cheered on by partisan home support, attempted a more attacking approach, throwing off the defensive shackles usually associated with the team who are masters of the driving maul.

Despite dominating the set piece with authority, the Italians were outclassed by a Romanian pack marshalled by captain Sorin Socol, who was later named Player of the Tournament, and Ovidiu Tonita.

A couple of vintage tries, the first by prop Cezar Popescu and the second by wing Catalin Fercu, along with the accurate and consistent boot of Dan Dumbrava saw Romania to a deserved victory.

The winning margin was enough for Romania to pip Italy A to second spot in the standings on points difference, albeit only just. Italy A had to settle for third place overall, something captain Antonio Pavanello wasn’t happy about.

“I’m upset because on the one hand we made unforced errors, which are normal in a match of rugby, but it is not acceptable to give away silly penalties when we should know better,” Pavanello said. “On the other hand we did not think properly, making mistake after mistake and allowing them to control the game which we should have won.”

His counterpart Socol insisted that “ultimately it was a question of desire, we really wanted this badly”, but despite the best every finish for Romania in a Nations Cup, he too had regrets, albeit not about this match but the opening one that got away against Namibia.


Georgia sprung a surprise by beating defending champions Scotland A - Photo: Dan Marinescu

“Although we won two important games, the loss against Namibia, a team we dominated, still hurts,” Socol admitted. “In fact, we underestimated them and they punished us and we deserved it. Namibia made significant progress and we expect them to get some good results at the next World Cup. We hope to play against them again.”

In between the Namibia loss and Italy A victory, Romania were convincing 24-8 winners over the Argentina Jaguars, the 2009 runners-up. The victory was the lift that the team and their loyal supporters needed, instilling the belief that under new coaches Steve McDowall and Romeo Gontineac they could go on to achieve bigger and better things.

The IRB Nations Cup – head for a fourth successive year in the Romanian capital – again provided vital experience for the likes of Namibia and Georgia, both nations having confirmed their places at Rugby World Cup 2011 over the preceding eight months.

The tournament also gave more established nations the chance to test new and exciting talent on the international stage, giving many players a chance to stake a claim for a place in their respective country’s squads at next year’s World Cup in New Zealand.

“I don’t know if we were close to our potential or not but we did everything in our power and put all the effort in to progress our game,” Argentina Jaguars captain Agustín Guzman said.

A valuable lesson

“This Nations Cup provided us with a great opportunity to advance our game, experience and playing careers. The most important thing for all of us here is that we came here as a group of players and we are leaving as a team.”

The Jaguars finished fifth in the standings, behind Georgia and above Scotland A – the side they beat 33-13 in the other match on the final day. This meant that Scotland A relinquished the title they won under Andy Robinson in 2009 without a victory, having lost 22-21 to Georgia and 23-20 to Namibia.

“You can’t criticise the effort of players. The way in which we’ve come together and trained has been very good,” admitted Scotland A coach Sean Lineen. “We scored the first try in every game but couldn’t keep up the intensity. I know the players will agree that the area which let us down was individual skills.

“I’m always very positive and what I’ll take back from this tournament is the performances shown by players like Fraser McKenzie, Steven Turnbull and Chris Fusaro. Bryan Rennie also put his hand up.

“I’m not sure we respected the tournament enough. This is a tournament where we have two teams in the World Cup. Everyone will learn from this.”

RESULTS:

11/06/2010 – Namibia 21-17 Romania
11/06/2010 – Argentina Jaguars 20-22 Italy A
11/06/2010 – Scotland A 21-22 Georgia
15/06/2010 – Italy A 21-3 Georgia
15/06/2010 – Scotland A 20-23 Namibia
15/06/2010 – Romania 24-8 Argentina Jaguars
20/06/2010 – Georgia 16-21 Namibia
20/06/2010 – Argentina Jaguars 33-13 Scotland A
20/06/2010 – Italy A 22-27 Romania