Past counts for nothing in Euro Nations Cup

(IRB.COM) Friday 20 March 2009
By Chris Thau
 Past counts for nothing in Euro Nations Cup
Romania line up against Portugal in Bucharest with third place in the division up for grabs

Make no mistake, statistics can be deceptive. None more so than the 'form guide' heading into this weekend's matches in the European Nations Cup, which of course doubles over 2009 and 2010 as qualifying for Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand.

Take the all-time list of matches between Romania and Portugal as an example: Played 15, Romania won 14, Portugal won one, back in 2003 and by one point; were the picture between the sides to be painted merely by numbers, the state of emergency declared in Romanian rugby would make no sense.

Following two defeats, Romania currently lie fourth in the division, one place behind the Portuguese, and are taking this weekend's match very seriously indeed, aware that progress towards the final stages of Rugby World Cup 2011 could be seriously undermined should Portugal succeed in recording a first ever win in Romania.

The progress of Portuguese rugby under their outstanding coach Tomaz Morais has been so dramatic during the last four or five years that no continental nation would now allow historical statistics to cloud any area of judgement before a match against Morais' men.

Portugal, who competed with great merit at the 2007 World Cup in France, have only one injury following their most recent home victory against Spain. Montpellier's Goncalo Uva is missing from a squad that is otherwise at full strength for coach Morais.

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With the former Romanian Director of Rugby Ellis Meachen fired at the beginning of the week after the defeat in Tbilisi, the sense of drama has been further compounded in Bucharest by the formation of a newlook coaching team.

Former Romania flanker and Under 19 coach Alexandru Achim, former international hooker and national coach Marin Mot, the forwards and fitness man Steve McDowell, who survived the purge, and Cristian Hildan, a former international wing who coached the backs under Meachen, make up the new unit. Between them the four coaches share a total of 63 test caps, without McDowell's two games in the colours of New Zealand Maori.

Romania's foreign-based stars return

To underline the significance of the occasion for Romania, the Federation has summoned some of the country's tried and tested veterans playing in the French leagues. Significantly, the firebrand flanker Alex Manta - a veteran of eight tests against Portgual - has made himself available along with former captain and scrum half Petre Mitu, scorer of a record 35 points against the Portuguese.

In addition, former Grenoble regular Florin Corodeanu and Cristian Petre have joined the squad for a week of build-up work at the Snagov camp but, on the downside, prop Mihaita Lazar and centre Catalin Dascalu have declared themselves unavailable following injuries suffered against Georgia.

To add to the frenzy surrounding the fixture, the Romanian Federation has announced that the current Federation President George Straton, whose leadership has been instrumental in giving Romanian rugby a great deal of international credibility, is to stand down at the end of his term.

A list of candidates has been published including former international centre Gheorghe Varzaru, who made a significant contribution to the construction work of the new national stadium Arcul de Triumf, former Romania captain Mircea Paraschiv, a former flanker/prop from Paris, Eugen Stefan and former Romanian captain Alin Petrache. No less than 11 names have been put forward for the vice-presidential positions.

Russia - Georgia, in Ukraine

Any statistics governing Russia's blockbuster against Georgia are equally deceptive. The Georgians have won 10 and drawn one of the 12 matches since their first clash in 1993 in Poland, which was also a World Cup qualifier and Georgia's only loss to date.

The Georgians have scored 258 points to 167 and 24 tries to nine but, with the match due to be played on neutral ground in Ukraine after last year's military conflict between the two countries, Georgia's coach Tim Lane and his assistants John Ngaumo and Damian Cummins are being ultra cautious in their approach against the hugely improved Russians, who lie just behind them in the table but have a 100 percent record from their three matches played in the 'Six Nations B', and a game in hand.

The Georgians have made two changes from the team that beat Romania last weekend. Irakli Guiordaze will play at centre for the injured Tedo Zibzibadze, while former skipper Ilia Zedguinidze returns from injury to take over from Rati Urushadze in the second row.

Georgia treat any matches against Russia very much like the Welsh and Scots view their clashes with England. It is far more than a match, it is history and tradition. A perceptive person, Lane observed this week that "Georgian players treat their jerseys as medieval knights do their weaponry. They put their souls into the game and contribute to the nation's cause."

Russia camp down in Turkey

Albeit less romantic, the remarkably effective Russians have been preparing for this "do or die" encounter in Turkey at a special camp which they share with the teams of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in Antalya.

The Russians have gathered a large squad of 60 players, including both the senior side captained by veteran scrum half Victor Motorin and their B side who are preparing for a tournament in Romania next month.

Russia's Director of Rugby, former Sale and Saracens head coach Steve Diamond, has triggered a mini-revolution within Russian rugby and they find themselves at this stage of the European Nations Cup, doubling up as RWC 2011 qualifiers, in the unusual position of favourites to proceed top.

The down-to-earth Englishman is well aware of the magnitude of the clash with the reigning champions and has asked his players to concentrate on the task in hand, rather than dream about what could be their first ever participation in a Rugby World Cup tournament.

Russia wary of Georgia's forward prowess

"We are aware of the strength of the Georgian forwards and we'll try to move the game away from them as quickly and efficiently as possible," he said.

"In Victor Motorin and his outside half partner Yury Kushnarev we have two players of genuine pedigree and tectical nous to do just that."

Both Motorin and Kushnarev, the son of former international hooker/flanker Victor and brother to another international, are just two of the 14 players from the VVA Monino (The Russian Air Academy), who are aiming to enter a team in the European Challenge Cup.

In the old-fashioned tradition of amateur rugby, and very much in the sprit of the game, the Russian coach spent the day on Thursday working with the teams of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to "help them master the basics".

Meanwhile, the Russians went through their routines under the watchful eye of the two assistant coaches, Nikolay Nerush and Alexander Pervuhin, the manager of Russian's Siberian team Krasnoyarsk.