Title and RWC 2011 dreams at stake in ENC
Georgia and Russia may have already confirmed their places at
Rugby World Cup 2011, but there is still the small matter of the
European Nations Cup title to decide when they come face to face in
north-east Turkey on Saturday.
The two rivals go into the sold-out encounter on neutral soil in Trabzon level on 24 points, both having won seven, drawn one and lost one of their nine matches to date in the competition which spans two years.
Georgia's perfect record was ended last weekend with a 22-10 loss to Romania in Bucharest, while Russia ensured they will go into the big tussle unbeaten in 2010 after overcoming Germany 48-11 in Sochi.
The Lelos currently sit top by virtue of a better point differential than Russia, which means that a victory or draw will be enough to ensure another successful title defence for Georgia and the Europe 1 berth at Rugby World Cup 2011.
The European Nations Cup champions will join Argentina, England, Scotland and the Play-off Winner in Pool B at RWC 2011 in New Zealand, with the runner up slotting into Pool C alongside Australia, Ireland, Italy and USA.
No bigger fixture for Russia
Both Georgia and Russia would clearly love to be crowned the European Nations Cup 2010 champions, but for the latter to go to RWC 2011 as Europe 2 would set up a mouth-watering encounter with USA in New Plymouth on 15 September.
Director of Rugby Steve Diamond admitted several months ago that "there would be no bigger fixture in Russia on TV than the former USSR playing the USA" and this was a sentiment echoed by Howard Thomas in the aftermath of Russia securing their historic qualification by drawing with Romania last month.
"I am English and so is part of the coaching team in Steve Diamond and Jos Baxendale, so you have to say a game against England for our own personal feelings would be something very special," Howard, the Vice President of the Rugby Union of Russia, told Total Rugby Radio.
"But equally the other one that catches the eye is if we are in the other group, a match between Russia and USA would be one that I think even outside of rugby world catch the sporting imagination of people not even interested in rugby. I think that would be a special game within the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand."
Georgia's Australian coach Tim Lane admits this encounter between the neighbours is "always fiercely contested" and "the one that all our players look forward to", particularly with the added spice of the European Nations Cup title at stake.
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The Lelos, who have qualified for a third successive Rugby World Cup, have the edge in the head-to-head with Russia, having won their last eight meetings and lost just once in 13 meetings - the first encounter back in May 1993 following the collapse of the former Soviet Union.
The most recent of these was a 29-20 success in Ukraine a year ago and a repeat of this would see Georgia return to 16th in the IRB World Rankings, regaining the two places they lost on the back of the Romania defeat to USA and Russia.
However, a defeat - allied with a Romanian win in Portugal - would see Georgia fall another place to 19th to occupy their lowest position for nearly four years with Russia climbing two places to a new high of 15th with a victory by more than 15 points in Trabzon.
A Georgian victory in the title decider will result in at least a one place drop for Russia, although they will slide another to 19th if Romania also win in Portugal, regardless of the final scores in both matches.
The battle to determine the European Nations Cup 2010 champion is not the only mouth-watering encounter in the top tier this weekend with Romania's visit to Portugal vital to both side's hopes of playing at next year's Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.
Must-win match for Romania
Portugal currently lead the race to finish third in the standings, which would throw them into a two-leg play-off against the winner of the Lithuania v Ukraine match for the right to represent Europe in the cross-continental play-off to determine the 20th and final qualifier for RWC 2011.
Their three-point advantage means that as long as Portugal avoid defeat on home soil in Lisbon then they will claim that third spot, so ending Romania's ever present record on the Rugby World Cup stage, even though their opponents still have one match to play - against Spain next weekend.
If Romania emerge victorious then even defeat by Spain would see them finish level with Portugal on 21 points, but providing their winning margin is more than a single point then they will finish third on the second differential to split teams finishing on the same points with both having won one match.
Romania had won six matches in a row against Portugal until Os Lobos triumphed 22-21 in Bucharest 12 months ago. A return to winning ways could see Romania end the weekend as high as 16th, taking them above USA, Russia and Georgia, although this would require them to win by more than 15 points and the match in Turkey to end in stalemate.
An emphatic win would see Portugal slip below Uruguay again, losing the place they gained by beating Spain 33-15 in Madrid last weekend. A smaller defeat would leave them 20th, but around five points below the side above them, be that Russia or Georgia.
This smaller margin of victory would mean Romania do not climb above USA, although mere thousandths of a rating point would then separate the pair. A draw would also take Romania above a losing Russia, although their Rugby World Cup dreams would be over.
Relegation battle in Heidelberg
Portugal go into the match trailing their visitors by just under four points in the rankings, so even a victory by more than 15 points will not improve their position of 20th, although it would bring them to within seven tenths of the Oaks.
The weekend's other European Nations Cup match may not have the ability to end a team's RWC 2011 ambitions, but it is important nonetheless with Germany knowing that defeat by Spain will consign them to an immediate return to Division 2A next season.
Spain can only finish fifth even if they beat Germany and win their rearranged match with Romania next weekend, but defeats in Heidelberg - providing it is by less than 11 points - and Bucharest will see them avoid relegation on the head-to-head criteria used to separate teams finishing level on points.
The Spaniards fell two places to 25th in the IRB World Rankings after their defeat by neighbours Portugal and must beat Germany by more than 15 points if they are to regain those places lost to Chile and Korea.
Germany, currently ranked 29th, will fall two or three places with defeat, depending on the margin. However, if they can pick up a first win in the European Nations Cup top tier then Germany will climb a minimum of two places.
They could rise to 25th - equalling their best ever ranking - with a victory by more than 15 points at the Fritz-Grunebaum-Sportpark, an outcome which would see Spain fall two places to 27th and their lowest position in the IRB World Rankings for more than three years.
Click here to find out how the final weekend of the RBS Six Nations could impact the IRB World Rankings and for the IRB's new international match previews of Wales v Italy, Ireland v Scotland and France v England.
The IRB World Rankings update every Monday at 12:00 UK time.