Greenwood: Great potential in Eastern Europe
European qualifying for Rugby World Cup 2015 is rapidly approaching, with Hungary and Bulgaria all set to get things underway in Kecskemét on 6 October.
The Webb Ellis Cup will be pitchside as the teams do battle, so the players will be able to see exactly what they are striving for. England Rugby 2015 Ambassadors Lawrence Dallaglio and Will Greenwood will be along for the ride as the trophy is transported from Rugby School to Hungary.
The coverage of the European Nations Cup Division 2C match will be another welcome boost for Hungarian and Bulgarian rugby, with both teams striving to climb the international ladder. The hosts currently sit in 85th place in the IRB World Rankings, six places behind Bulgaria.
Greenwood – a Rugby World Cup-winner with England in 2003 – has first-hand experience of Bulgarian rugby after playing a club match against Pernik in 2007. A Hungarian college roommate asked him and a bunch of old friends to play in the charity game to raise money for a children’s hospice in Sofia.
As is the case for many of the Game’s emerging nations, he observed players with plenty of natural talent and willing but work to do to smooth rough edges.
“It was the usual thing with university friends all hitting mid-30s, the call went out ‘do you fancy going out to Bulgaria to play a game of rugby?’ Genuinely, we all said yes without really knowing where Bulgaria is,” Greenwood recalled.
“We met the Pernik guys in the bar the night before. They were just big, big men. It was no different on the rugby field the following day. What they lacked in intricate detail and technical expertise ... you didn’t want to get tackled by them.”
Greenwood found out quickly that there would be plenty of physicality when a faulty backs move resulted in him being blindsided. “I still have the scars on my knees,” he said. “I genuinely still have the scars on my knees. I didn’t see the bloke coming and he absolutely clattered me!”
Both Hungary and Bulgaria have a long way to go if they are to challenge for a spot at a Rugby World Cup, but Greenwood hopes that Eastern European rugby will soon be a force to be reckoned with on the world stage.
The raw materials are already very much in evidence and in Romania and Georgia – the flag-bearers for the region at Rugby World Cups – there are already two packs that would trouble any international selection.
Greenwood fondly remembers Rob Andrew making his England bow against Romania at Twickenham in 1985 when the hosts won 22-15, and also the development of Georgia as Rugby World Cup competitors, having been left with a few bruises after meeting the Lelos in their debut tournament in 2003.
“Romania got very strong and then there was the civil war, unfortunately, and that put them a stride back in their rugby. The Georgians have taken on the mantle and really should have beaten Ireland at the Rugby World Cup in 2007.
“They played us in 2003 and while we won quite easily we were definitely in the ice bath straight away afterwards. There’s a physical side to the Eastern Europeans, a natural size that lends itself to rugby. If you look at all the Olympic weightlifting competitions they’re in there.
“What they need is investment and organisation at grass roots level to give opportunities to 14, 15-year-olds to see it as a viable alternative. If that happens there is no doubt that part of the world can be very, very strong on the rugby field.
“The Rugby World Cup isn’t just about 20 teams fighting it out each time. Clearly the top eight don’t deviate that much, but after that there’s a very healthy underscore of sides who are desperate to make it to the top table and England 2015.”