By Chris Thau in Bucharest and Jon Newcombe
The IRB Nations Cup 2013 gets underway at the Arcul de Triumf Stadium in Bucharest on Saturday with a clash between old adversaries Romania and Russia.
The match pitches together two Welshmen well known to each other in the form of Lynn Howells and Kingsley Jones, who are in charge of Romania and Russia respectively.
Jones was coached by Howells at club and international level, and has never got the better of his mentor since the two of them left the UK for an altogether different challenge in Eastern Europe.
However the former Wales captain believes the gap between the two countries is closing, citing the ENC Division 1a clash back in March as evidence.
Romania won 29-14 but Jones feels the scoreline did them a major disservice.
“It was much closer than that,” he reasoned. “We were ahead for the best part of an hour only for some decisions to go against us.
“We finished the game with 14 men and then conceded an intercept try right at the death, so I can truthfully say the scoreline flattered them.”
Jones’ hand in the team selection stakes has been forced by injury and Rugby World Cup Sevens 2013 call-ups.
“We’re not going to use that as an excuse,” he said.
“I’ve still selected a squad from the group of 35 players who are adjudged to be the best in Russia.
“We’re looking for these players to step up.
“Romania, the defending champions, got great support last year; they have a good crowd behind them, are well coached and have a strong set-piece, so it’s going to be a tough challenge. But we want to win the Nations Cup.”
The sense of urgency was noticeable among all the 120-odd players and officials as they made their final preparations for the first round of matches at the captain’s press conference on Friday afternoon.
For Russian captain Andrey Temnov, Saturday’s match will also be his first in charge of his country, having played most of his 26 caps under Alexander Voytov, who pulled out injured on the eve of the tournament.
“It is great being back in Bucharest and look forward to tomorrow's clash with our traditional adversary Romania. The more tournaments of this kind we have, the better for us,” said Russia's Yury Kushnarev, who, after playing only once in the last 12 months due to an ACL injury is entitled to feel excited about the prospect of any form of rugby, let alone a huge fixture such as this.
Kushnarev is named at full back for Saturday's match, but is perhaps best known as the fly half who scored Russia’s first-ever points at a Rugby World Cup when he kicked a third-minute penalty against the USA in the 2011 tournament.
His Romanian counterpart flanker Mihai Macovei confirmed that the test against Russia, the 15th between the two countries, will be a keenly fought encounter, which will enable the Romania team to try out a few newcomers at international level.
“The match against Russia is very important for us as it will test our young team against one of our strongest opponents as well as having an impact on the IRB World Rankings of both countries,” said Macovei, who starts in the number seven jersey.
One youngster getting their chance for the Oaks is loosehead prop Constantin Pristavita.
The 20-year-old rookie starts against Russia and is rated very highly by Howells.
He said: “Bath wanted him to join their academy after he impressed whilst playing against them for Bucharesti Wolves in the Amlin Challenge Cup. But unfortunately he couldn’t go over because of family and school commitments.
“He is a real talent: 6’2 and about 19-and-a-half stone. He reminds me a lot of Gethin Jenkins, who has a huge motor and can run and run and run.”
Zebre's to earn their stripes
Whether they acknowledge it or not, the shadow of Rugby World Cup 2015 dominates both the thinking and the discourse of players and coaching staff of the four team Nations Cup line-up that includes Emerging Italy and Argentina Jaguars, who also meet on the opening day.
For the youngsters on both sides this is an opportunity to stake a claim for a place on the plane to England in two years’ time.
“We have not played together before and we hope to be able to make an impact at this level,” said Italy captain Andrea de Marchi, one of six Zebre players in the Italian team - the largest contingent of any one club within the 26-strong Emerging Italy squad.
“For us, playing well and winning, in this order, is what we are about.”
Expanding the number of players eligible for international selection is what concerns both the Romania and Russia coaches, with the tournament providing a suitable stage for the youngsters to display their talent and aspirations.
Meanwhile, in his welcome speech to the participants, FRR President Alin Petrache confirmed that Romania, host nation for the last seven years, would continue in that role up to and including 2015.
“The tournament has become a fantastic showpiece for rugby in Romania and we are delighted to welcome you,” he told the gathering in Bucharest.
“We will make every effort to make sure you enjoy both the rugby and the Romanian hospitality and we hope that you will always want to come back here.”