The IRB Nations Cup took on added significance in 2011 with three of the six participating teams using the tournament to fine-tune their preparations for the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand just three months later. One of these, Namibia, arrived as the defending champions after their surprise success last year, while Georgia and hosts Romania were themselves hoping to challenge for the title.
For the fifth successive year the Nations Cup was held in the Romanian capital of Bucharest with Portugal, hosts of the inaugural tournament in 2006, the Argentina Jaguars and the South African Kings completing the six-team field for the competition played at the stadionul National Arcul de Triumf from June 10-19.
The South African Kings, on their first foray overseas, would ultimately become their country’s third Nations Cup winners with an unbeaten record following wins over Georgia, Romania and Portugal. The Alan Solomons coached outfit did not have it all their own way, but with number 8 Luke Watson in outstanding form and wing Siyanda Grey scoring a record six tries for the tournament, the Kings followed in the footsteps of the Emerging Springboks coached by Peter de Villiers in 2007 and the Chester Williams coached Emerging South Africa a year later.
The opening day kicked off with defending champions Namibia taking on Romania, but despite the presence of 11 of their 2010 vintage the Africans failed to take their chances and it was the host nation who edged a tight affair 13-11. “At the end of the day, a win is a win, though we did not play to our full potential and made too many unforced errors, both individual and as a team,” was the verdict of Romania captain Marius Tincu.
Rain had begun to fall shortly after the opening match but it did not stop the desire of both Georgia and the South African Kings to play running rugby. Georgia scored the first try through Irakli Chkhikvadze, but the Kings ultimately ran out 31-17 winners with Watson leading from the front and Grey scoring a hat-trick of tries.
The final match of the day was a thrilling encounter between Portugal and the Jaguars. Los Lobos produced an inspired performance to mark the Portuguese National Day, full of pride and guts to upset the Jaguars 25-21. The lead changed hands several times, but the never-say-die attitude of the Portuguese, who tackled like men possessed, snatched an unexpected victory with a well-taken try by replacement Jacques Le Roux.
Four days later two of the unbeaten sides came face to face with Romania and the Kings playing out a dramatic encounter full of great intensity and passion in the dusk of a balmy Bucharest afternoon. Romania dominated the early exchanges but the South Africans shifted up a gear in the second half and ran out 27-23 winners before a vocal capacity crowd.
Georgia beat Namibia to finish as runners-up to South African Kings - Photo: Dan Marinescu
While the Kings went to the top of the standings with two wins from two, the other two matches produced first victories of the tournament for Namibia and Georgia, both by narrow margins. The Namibians adapted better to the heavy rain to win a hard and uncompromising affair with Portugal 29-23, while Georgia also had cause to celebrate after battling to a 14-13 win over the Jaguars to the delight of coach Richie Dixon. “We have achieved what we wanted, that is to see several young players at work, in significant areas for the RWC squad and I am delighted with their work rate ... the fact that we won is really a bonus.”
Four nations went into the final day with a shot at the title, although if the South African Kings ran out winners over Portugal in the opening match then the results for Romania and Namibia against the Jaguars and Georgia respectively would only suffice to determine the final standings. Despite the loss of Watson after he was taken ill on the eve of the match, the Kings battled past the committed Portuguese to triumph 39-12, their third try by flanker Jacques Potgieter taking the IRB Nations Cup through the 2,000 point mark since it began in Lisbon in 2006.
“This was a good win, the third of the tournament, and I am happy for the boys,” admitted Kings captain and former South Africa Sevens star Mzwandile Stick. “We had lost our way in the first half, but a few words from the coach at half-time and we regained structure after the break. It was very hot and this was a very intense, physical tournament. I am delighted.”
Portugal coach Errol Brain was nonetheless delighted by “the progress of this young team” and admitted “this is the kind of rugby Portuguese rugby needs to make progress and I am very happy for the boys”. Los Lobos would ultimately finish fifth, above Romania on point differential after the hosts were felled 37-13 by the Jaguars in the final match of the tournament.
It was the Jaguars’ first win of the 2011 tournament and came after they began to pinch ball at the breakdown with regularity and launch lightning counter-attacks in the second half, wrapping up the bonus point with Joaquin Tuculet’s try. This, allied with two losing bonus points after narrow losses to Portugal and Georgia, enabled the Argentina Jaguars to sneak into third place in the standings.
Georgia were the others winners on the final day, recovering from a 15-10 deficit at half-time to claim victory in the 50th match in IRB Nations Cup history with Revaz Gigauri’s try and the boot of Malkhaz Urjukashvili making the 2010 champions pay for some wayward kicking. Dixon was quick to pay tribute to his charges for “showing the true Georgian spirit” in the second half to seal the 23-18 victory and the runners-up spot behind the South African Kings.
IRB NATIONS CUP 2011 RESULTS
10/06/11 – Romania 13-11 Namibia – stadionul National Arcul de Triumf
10/06/11 – Georgia 17-31 South African Kings – stadionul National Arcul de Triumf
10/06/11 – Argentina Jaguars 21-25 Portugal – stadionul National Arcul de Triumf
15/06/11 – Georgia 14-13 Argentina Jaguars – stadionul National Arcul de Triumf
15/06/11 – Romania 23-27 South African Kings – stadionul National Arcul de Triumf
15/06/11 – Portugal 23-29 Namibia – stadionul National Arcul de Triumf
19/06/11 – Portugal 12-39 South African Kings – stadionul National Arcul de Triumf
19/06/11 – Georgia 23-18 Namibia – stadionul National Arcul de Triumf
19/06/11 – Romania 13-37 Argentina Jaguars – stadionul National Arcul de Triumf