With the great and the good of Romanian sport watching on at a packed Stadionul National Arcul de Triumf, the Oaks successfully defended the IRB Nations Cup title they won 12 months earlier when they beat Emerging Italy on a balmy June evening in Bucharest. In doing so, they became only the second side in the eight-year history of the competition to retain the trophy.
To the delight of a 6,000-strong capacity crowd that included the likes of gymnastics legend Nadia Comaneci, tennis star Ion Tiriac, chairman of the National Olympic Committee Octavian Morariu and the Minister for Sport and Youth Nicolae Banicioiu, Romania overcame a slow start to eventually dominate their opponents and win 26-13, thus completing a hat-trick of victories following earlier successes over Russia (30-20) and an experienced Argentina Jaguars outfit (30-8).
Romania had to come from 14-3 behind to make it five Tests without defeat against Russia, while their victory over Argentina’s second string provided the perfect 26th birthday present for try-scoring second row Valentin Poparlan.
Emerging Italy, like Romania, had won both their opening matches to set up a winner-takes-all finale against the hosts and defending champions, the exact scenario they had found themselves in last year.
Two tries from flanker Edoardo Ruffolo and 16 points from the boot of fly half James Ambrosini helped them to a 26-6 victory over the Jaguars in round one, and, despite the concession of two more yellow cards and an enforced stoppage due to an overhead thunderstorm, they followed that up with a 27-19 victory against Russia, for whom utility back Yury Kushnarev was again influential.
In the decisive final match the Nations Cup title was definitely within the Italians’ grasp after they twice took the lead during a tension-fuelled first half. But a try from Romania full back Catalin Fercu and eight points from the reliable boot of centre Florin Vlaicu pegged them back and the sides entered the break locked at 13-13.
The Fercu/Vlaicu double act accounted for all the points in the second half as Vlaicu punished Italian ill-discipline with his third and fourth penalties of the match. The show-stealing moment, though, was reserved for Fercu, who sent the crowd into raptures when he broke away from a driving maul to score a second opportunist try a couple of minutes from time.
While seeing Romania lift the trophy for a second successive year was a proud moment for head coach Lynn Howells, the former Wales coach took just as much pleasure in seeing new players come to the fore during the tournament. As many as six players were handed their international debuts at the Nations Cup, providing further evidence of its value as a vehicle for expanding the player pool available for selection at senior Test level. The most remarkable rise was undoubtedly that of rookie wing Stephen Hihetah, a lower league player based in England who was included in the Romania starting line-up for the Emerging Italy match just a month after being discovered at the Bournemouth Sevens.
“Our objective is to discover more talented players capable of playing at international level and so far this year we have been fairly successful,” commented Howells, who is fast acquiring cult-status among the Romanian rugby public through his easy-going nature and ability to deliver silverware.