Romania must confront generation gap
ASHBURTON, 4 Sept. - Romanian rugby risks languishing at representative level once the current generation of players retire, according to respected members of the national team and its coaching staff.
Several of the country's top players have enjoyed successful careers in the French leagues spanning the past decade. But whether the Oaks can continue their proud tradition of qualifying for every World Cup since 1987 in the absence of these ageing stars remains unclear.
"This is where it started and maybe where it ends," said Steve McDowall, the former All Black who is the Oaks' technical coach.
"One of the challenges Romania faces is rugby having a more positive image. There is a lot of negativity towards it," he said.
The game flourished in Romania from the 1960s under Communist leader Nicolae Ceauşescu, who poured resources into sports he believed would improve the image of his regime. Many workplaces, public organisations and government bodies, such as police and administrative departments, formed teams.
But the amateur ethic associated with Ceauşescu's rule declined after the spread of democracy through Eastern Europe in the late 1980s.
McDowall, who played in two World Cups for New Zealand, believes the resulting generational shift could disadvantage the Romanians.
"It may really hurt them for the next World Cup," he said. "Those who grew up after Ceauşescu have a different mentality and there's a risk that will affect the next generation of rugby players.
"Genetically, they're built to play rugby, It's more of a cultural challenge, changing people's attitudes in and around the sport."
Oaks captain Marius Tincu, a hooker for French Top 14 side Perpignan, admitted that passing on his international playing experience to the country's younger players is a difficult task.
"Romanian rugby undoubtedly benefits from players competing at a higher championships level," the 33-year-old said. "But it's not easy explaining or making someone else understand what you have experienced or learned.
"You cannot get someone to live vicariously through your experiences, they need their own experiences."
Tincu, who holds dual French-Romanian citizenship, said 10 years of playing in the French championships have pushed his technical abilities to a higher level.
"You always need to play a team that is better than you, otherwise you will never improve, or know how to improve."
While they accept rugby will never be as popular as football in Romania, the Oaks players hope their performances at Rugby World Cup 2011 will shine a light on the forgotten sport back home.
The national rugby federation is starting to focus on building relationships with schools in order to create opportunities for players and clubs.
Team manager Robert Antonin is a former IRB Europe rugby development director. He established Romania's rugby academy in 2004 and believes it can be instrumental in improving the country's prospects.
"Creating a rugby environment is very important for players' and coaches' learning," Antonin said.
McDowall agrees there has been progress in the sport's development but fears that continuity is being disrupted.
"Everyone's looking out for themselves, and that means rugby takes a step back," he said.
He thinks strong mentors - such as those who have led successful careers in France - can help steer the next generation of players in the right direction, but clubs in Romania also need to raise their game.
"Club competition in Romania doesn't allow for a stronger or deeper base of rugby knowledge," McDowall said. "We lack competitive games to keep our edge."
The Oaks open their RWC 2011 campaign with a Pool B clash against Scotland in Invercargill on 10 September.
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