The road to Rugby World Cup 2011
There will be a new nation competing alongside the game’s traditional heavyweights for the Webb Ellis Cup in New Zealand after Russia successfully qualified for a Rugby World Cup for the first time in their short history as a distinct union.
The Rugby Union of Russia was only established in 1992 following the break-up of the old Soviet Union and just 18 years later, the Bears were celebrating booking a place at RWC 2011 after an historic 21-21 draw with Romania in Sochi on 27 February 2010.
The draw meant Russia were guaranteed a top two finish in the European Nations Cup and one of the region’s two qualification places at RWC 2011. However, it would be another three weeks before they knew they would enter Pool C with Australia, Ireland, Italy and USA, their first opponents at Stadium Taranaki in New Plymouth on 15 September 2011.
“To qualify for the Rugby World Cup is absolutely enormous for us,” said Howard Thomas, the RUR’s Chief Executive. “To get across the line in the European Nations Cup I would say is the hardest route to qualify for Tier Two countries. We have a very competitive league with the likes of Georgia, Romania and Portugal and I’m proud of the players and everyone involved.
“Having said that we know we have to step up enormously. We look at the last World Cup and see how well Georgia did, and obviously Portugal and Romania had their moments and also Namibia. In all the games you play you want to make it a competitive game of rugby. We want to make sure that our defence is up for it, physically we’re up for it and fitness-wise we’re up for it.”
Wing Alexander Gvozdovskiy was the hero for Russia with two tries against Romania. Yury Kushnarev converted one of them and also landed three penalties in the 21-21 stalemate that ensured the qualification.
Realisation dawns for Russia
“For me this is probably the top of my dreams, to play for my country, my national team and to qualify for the World Cup," admitted wing Vasily Artemyev after the team had earned qualification. “It was a very tough emotional task for the players to play a match at such a high level of expectation as we did against Romania, and to be honest after the final whistle went I felt a bit emptied out.
“Then a couple of days after that the achievement that we’d made started to sink in. It’s only now that we’ve started really talking about it as a team that we understand fully what we have achieved with that result.”
From Europe, the Russians were joined by Georgia in qualifying for the finals on the same weekend after they beat Spain 17-9 at the National Stadium in Tbilisi. It was the Lelos’ seventh victory in their previous eight European Nations Cup matches and guaranteed them a third consecutive World Cup appearance.
“Though I am not Georgian, I understand perfectly well how the Georgians must feel now and share with them the excitement any local rugby supporter must experience now that the national team has won its third World Cup ticket in a row and that the word ‘Georgia’ will resound on the international stage once again,” said former Wallaby centre Tim Lane, who has seen been replaced by Richie Dixon as Georgia coach.
“It was our goal to bring Georgia to the Rugby World Cup again and I am really happy that this goal has been achieved. Now our goal as a team is to make a worthy appearance at the finals.”
The final day meeting between Georgia and Russia would not only decide the ENC champion, but also who qualified as Europe 1 and 2 for RWC 2011. Georgia claimed the title after triumphing 36-8 and, in the process, booked their place in Pool B at RWC 2011 with Argentina, England, Scotland and the Play-off Winner.
Georgia qualified as Europe 1 after beating Russia in Turkey - Photo: Tamar Kulumbegashvili
The title decider was played in the Akçabaat Fatih Stadium in Trabzon, Turkey, but some 6,000 Georgian fans were still in attendance to see their side run in five tries to one. The match, despite political tensions between the two countries following the brief war of 2008, was played in an excellent spirit.
“For Georgian rugby, another World Cup appearance means a big surge in popularity,” explained second row Ilia Zedginidze, who captained Georgia at RWC 2007 in France. “It will bring a fresh wave of children and teenagers into youth rugby teams, another boost for development, another chance to go forward. And as regards myself, I am happy to be a part of this process and grateful to everyone who supports us on our way.”
Away from Europe, Canada became the first of the eight teams who did not pre-qualify to confirm their place at RWC 2011 after beating old rivals USA in a home and away play-off in July 2009.
Canada, who have appeared at every Rugby World Cup, lost the first leg 12-6 in Charleston but made the most of home advantage in Edmonton seven days later with a 41-18 victory that gave them a 47-30 aggregate triumph.
James Pritchard, Adam Kleeberger and Justin Mensah-Coker all scored tries in the first half at Ellerslie Rugby Park to establish Canadian supremacy and, despite a revival from the Eagles after the break, further scores from Ed Fairhurst and DTH van der Merwe secured the all-important win.
“There was a lot on this game and we let ourselves down last week,” admitted Canada coach Kieran Crowley. “We didn’t turn up in the first match and we wanted to put things right. It’s been a long week waiting for this game, so we’re pretty happy.
“We didn’t create a lot in the first half but we lived off their turnovers, which was great, and then we went for a long period in the second half with no ball but we made them pay a couple of times and were able to keep that little bit in front.”
Victory confirmed Canada’s place in Pool A alongside hosts New Zealand, France, Tonga and the Asian qualifier, which nearly a year later was confirmed as Japan, a side they drew 12-12 with at RWC 2007 in France.
Canada were the first nation to emerge through the qualifiers - Photo: José Romelo Lagman
The Samoans joined the party a week later. In truth, there was little doubt about their involvement after they had overwhelmed Papua New Guinea 115-7 in Apia in the first leg of their Oceania qualifier, and they rubber stamped their progress to RWC 2011 in the return game in Port Moresby with a 72-13 win, including a hat-trick from wing Mikaele Pesamino.
“They were a lot harder in front of their home crowd,” admitted Samoa captain Gavin Williams after the final whistle. “If they can improve that much in the space of a week, then PNG rugby is heading the right way forward.”
Samoa’s reward for their efforts was a place in Pool D alongside South Africa, Wales, Fiji and Namibia, who were duly confirmed as the Africa 1 qualifier in November 2009.
The same month, the USA were presented with a chance to redeem themselves after losing to Canada and they did not disappoint at the second time of asking as Eddie O’Sullivan’s side overcame Uruguay to become the Americas 2 qualifier.
The Eagles had narrowly beaten Los Teros 27-22 – surviving a late Uruguayan rally – in the first leg, but were far more convincing in the second at Broward County Regional Park in Lauderhill, Florida.
Louis Stanfill and Kevin Swiryn scored first half tries for the home side to ease any early nerves and when captain Todd Clever crashed over for his two scores after the break, the USA were home and dry with the 27-6 win giving the Eagles a 54-28 aggregate success.
Namibia seal African spot
“I was very happy with our defence,” O’Sullivan said. “It went very well today. We scrummaged better and stopped their rolling maul, which were the two parts of the game that we needed to improve from last week. I feel happy with the way we finished, although Uruguay made us work for it.
“It’s tough to hit the ground running after not being together since July, and although we qualified, which was our ultimate goal, they were a little rusty early on. I can’t be too hard on them, though, they got the job done and you can’t forget that we scored eight tries in the last two games.”
Namibia then became the fourth team to confirm their place at New Zealand 2011. Tunisia stood between them and a World Cup place but over two legs the Welwitschias proved the stronger and emerged 40-23 aggregate winners.
A tight 18-13 triumph for Namibia in Tunis in the first leg left the outcome hanging in the balance, but a fortnight later they proved too strong for their visitors as they battled their way to a crucial 22-10 victory in Windhoek.
Tunisia began the encounter the more confident looking side and scored the first try through wing Abbes Kherfani, while Namibia had to rely on the boot of fly half Emile Wessels to keep them in contention.
The critical score for the hosts, however, came on the hour when number 8 Tinus du Plessis crashed over in the Hage Geingob Rugby Stadium, and when the final whistle sounded, the Welwitschias were through and could look forward to a match with defending champions South Africa in Pool D.
Kosuke Endo scored five of Japan's tries as they overwhelmed Korea 71-13 in the A5N
In May 2010, Japan were confirmed as the 19th of the 20 nations who will converge on New Zealand after winning a third successive HSBC Asian 5 Nations title, overcoming the challenge of Kazakhstan, Hong Kong, Arabian Gulf and Korea.
Coached by former All Black wing John Kirwan, the Brave Blossoms were in dominant form throughout the competition and began their season with a 71-13 win over Korea. The Japanese never looked back and signed off with a 94-5 victory over Hong Kong in the Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium in Tokyo.
The qualification maintained Japan’s proud record of appearing in every Rugby World Cup and sent them through to Pool A to face the All Blacks, France, Tonga and Canada.
“Every Rugby World Cup is special for the athletes,” said Kirwan after a qualifying campaign which saw his side score an incredible 326 points in four games. “If we perform well in New Zealand and give it our best effort we will have a great time.
“I think for Japan it is also an opportunity for us to measure our improvement. We drew with Canada in 2007 and will be looking for a win this time around. I want to show the world how much we have improved and I hope we have the courage to play our style of rugby.
“Our goal is to be first a top 10 team at the World Cup in 2011, then top eight by 2015. Canada and Tonga will be important matches and if we can win these two games, then we automatically qualify for 2015.
“We are hoping to get great support from the Japanese fans travelling to New Zealand. It is a popular destination for Japanese tourists and I am sure they will be encouraged by the added motivation of cheering on their team.”
Romania celebrate after claiming the final place at Rugby World Cup 2011 - Photo: Dan Marinescu
The final qualifier would be determined by a cross-continental play-off involving Romania, Uruguay, Tunisia and Kazakhstan. The dreams of a first ever appearance for Tunisia and Kazakhstan came to an end in July 2010 with defeats by Romania (56-13) and Uruguay (44-7).
Four months later, Uruguay and Romania duly locked horns with the prize of a place at RWC 2011 awaiting the victor over two legs. A Hollywood director could not have written a better script with the first leg, in Montevideo on 13 November, ending all square after hosts Uruguay fought back to draw 21-21.
The 184th and final match of a qualification process which had begun in Grand Cayman on 20 April 2008 and involved 80 nations across five continents was therefore a tense affair at the stadionul National Arcul de Triumf in Bucharest a fortnight later, a partisan sell-out crowd eager to see Romania triumph.
They got their wish with the experience of Romania ultimately proving too much for a young Uruguayan outfit with tries from Csaba Gal, Alexandru Manta, Catalin Fercu and Madalin Lemnaru securing a 39-12 win and a place alongside Argentina, England, Scotland and Georgia in Pool B.
“I feel like I am flying now, it feels very good,” admitted coach Romeo Gontineac, a veteran of four Rugby World Cups as a player. “It is a hard job that we start now, the hardest job starts now. We will try to construct a very competitive team for the World Cup.”
A statement that the coaches of Canada, Samoa, USA, Namibia, Georgia, Russia and Japan would echo after safely negotiating the qualification road to New Zealand.