There was more at stake than just the IRB Nations Cup title when six teams converged on the Romanian capital of Bucharest in June with the tournament regarded as an important stepping stone on the road to Rugby World Cup 2015.
Portugal, Romania, Russia and Uruguay all hope to emerge through the global qualifying process to take their place in England, while for the players of Emerging Italy and Argentina Jaguars it was an opportunity to show their respective national coaches that they can be stars of the future.
Romania, hosting the key IRB strategic tournament for the sixth year in a row, would ultimately be crowned champions, but only after edging tight battles with Argentina Jaguars and Emerging Italy at the Stadionul National Arcul de Triumf to succeed South African Kings as champions.
All three sides had entered the final day with a mathematical chance of lifting the trophy, although the Jaguars needed a bonus-point win over Russia and then the unbeaten Romania and Emerging Italy to draw their winner-takes-all encounter to be crowned champions.
The South Americans came up one-try short of their target as they turned a slender 12-9 half-time advantage into a comfortable looking 33-9 win with tries from replacement trio Nicolás Basile, Marcos Bollini and Lucas Ponce in the last 10 minutes. In reality they had been fortunate that Russia were unable to convert their first-half dominance of the set pieces into points.
Emerging Italy proved a surprise package and came close to claiming the title in Romania
That left Romania and Emerging Italy, the youngest team in the tournament, comprising Under 25 players from the Italian domestic championship, to battle it out for the title. For a while it looked as though Romania would be their own worst enemies as chance after chance went begging, although the young Italians never buckled despite long periods of dominance by their hosts.
Romania’s new fly half Dorin Manole ensured his side went in leading 10-3 at half-time after adding a converted try to his earlier penalty, but he was also guilty of missing the target with three penalty attempts. Emerging Italy cut the deficit with a penalty and four points remained the margin until Romania were awarded a penalty try with 10 minutes remaining as their pressure finally told.
The Italians again refused to give up but could only manage a try by Alberto Chiesa, the fly half rounding off a sweeping backline move, and so it was Romania left celebrating a first piece of silverware since the European Nations Cup success of 2006.
“This was a dream that became a reality today,” admitted coach Haralambie Dumitras. “This was achieved by a group of determined players who strongly believed in this dream. We have almost forgotten what it is like to lift a trophy. We are going to celebrate this, but this is not going to last long. As they say, you are only as good as your last match and we must prepare for the next round of international matches.”
Emerging Italy ended up finishing third, behind the Jaguars on point differential, but for head coach Gianluca Guidi the placing was almost irrelevant because the experience his young charges had gained was invaluable for both their individual careers and the future of Italian rugby.
“I have to say that I am enormously proud of my team,” Guidi admitted. “We left Italy with 15 boys and we go back with 15 men. They proved that the future of Italian rugby is secure and I will not be surprised if some of them will go all the way. It was a fantastic tournament that enabled these young men to grow and express themselves. It was fantastic to see them gaining in confidence, skill levels and spirit as the tournament wore on.”
The other match on the final day saw Uruguay finish with a flourish as they blew Portugal away to lead 28-0 at half-time, fly half Felipe Berchesi orchestrating wave after wave of attack. Trying to play catch-up rugby did not suit the Portuguese structured style and coach Errol Brain labelled the 35-7 loss as “without doubt our worst performance since I took over.”
The Nations Cup had signalled a new focus for Romania, backs and defence coach Neil Kelly admitting in the build up to the tournament a desire to play a more expansive game than traditionally associated with the Oaks.
“By its very nature Eastern European rugby has always been very forwards-orientated, but the Rugby World Cup showed that only gets you so far,” he explained.
“We’re on the four-year cycle to RWC 2015 and we want to develop some backs that can complement the forwards. The forwards need to be able to trust the backs to hang on to the ball and do the right thing at the right time. It’s going to be a bit of a challenge, but I am sure we can do it.”
Romania had kicked off with this new approach against Uruguay, the side they had beaten over two legs in November 2010 to secure the last qualification place at RWC 2011, in this year’s opening Nations Cup match played in intense heat in Bucharest on 8 June.
Under the watchful eye of new Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta, the Oaks ran out 29-9 winners in a physical but mostly forgettable match, defensive errors from the tiring Uruguayans allowing wings Madalin Lemnaru and Catalin Fercu to score tries in the final quarter.
The second match, between Russia and Emerging Italy, was a complete contrast with both sides eager to play running rugby. Russia recovered from conceding an early try to cross three times for a 17-5 lead after half an hour as they dominated the set pieces and held firm in defence.
Portugal and Uruguay battled it out on the final day to avoid finishing bottom of the standings
However, two Andrea Bacchetti tries in the five minutes before half-time swung the match in Emerging Italy’s favour and they never relinquished the lead, growing in belief and putting the gloss on victory with further tries by Gabriele Morelli and Chiesa.
Argentina Jaguars also made an impressive start in Bucharest, avenging a narrow loss by Portugal in last year’s competition with a comprehensive 41-9 victory, captain Santiago González Iglesias directing the play impressively from fly half.
Four days later the Jaguars came within a whisker of making it two wins from two after fighting back from 23-9 down approaching the hour mark to end up losing 23-21 to Romania. The hosts should have been further ahead, but had somehow managed at least twice to knock the ball on after crossing the Jaguars’ try-line.
Fortunately for Romania, the errors didn’t prove costly and they could look forward to the winner-takes-all encounter with Emerging Italy, who had earlier shown great composure and smart counter-attacking rugby against the gallant Portuguese. The sides had gone in level at 11-11 at half-time, but an intercept try from Gonçalo Uva – younger brother of captain Vasco – gave Portugal an 18-14 advantage with half an hour remaining.
Portugal’s confidence was high, but the young Italians weren’t fazed, they simply refocused and within minutes Alberto Chillon had given them a lead they would not surrender, the scrum half finishing with 18 points in the 28-21 win that had coach Guidi proclaiming “this is the face of Italian rugby and I am happy to show how many talented players we have in the country, ready to make the step to a higher level, to help the work of (national coach) Jacques Brunel.”
The final match on day two was also decided by a single score, Russia beating Uruguay 19-13 after a tough and uncompromising match between two sides who fought to the bitter end in search of a first win in the tournament. Uruguay had raced into a 10-0 lead but Russia regrouped and tries by debutant Innokentiy Zykov and Ivan Kotov gave them a half-time lead they never relinquished.
IRB NATIONS CUP 2012 RESULTS
08/06/12 – Romania 29-9 Uruguay – Stadionul National Arcul de Triumf
08/06/12 – Russia 17-33 Emerging Italy – Stadionul National Arcul de Triumf
08/06/12 – Portugal 9-41 Argentina Jaguars – Stadionul National Arcul de Triumf
12/06/12 – Portugal 21-28 Emerging Italy – Stadionul National Arcul de Triumf
12/06/12 – Romania 23-21 Argentina Jaguars – Stadionul National Arcul de Triumf
12/06/12 – Russia 19-13 Uruguay – Stadionul National Arcul de Triumf
17/06/12 – Russia 9-33 Argentina Jaguars – Stadionul National Arcul de Triumf
17/06/12 – Portugal 7-35 Uruguay – Stadionul National Arcul de Triumf
17/06/12 – Romania 17-13 Emerging Italy – Stadionul National Arcul de Triumf