Race to reach RWC 2015 resumes in Europe
The race for Rugby World Cup 2015 qualification gets under way again this weekend with the resumption of Division 1A in the European Nations Cup 2014 involving Belgium, Georgia, Portugal, Romania, Russia and Spain.
At its conclusion in March, the top two placed teams will qualify as Europe 1 and 2 respectively, while the third placed team will play another European side (the Division 1B winner or the Netherlands) for the right to represent the region in the Répechage later in the year.
There will also be high stakes at the other end of the table with the team that finishes bottom to be replaced by the Division 1B winner next season.
As it currently stands, defending champions Georgia would progress as the Europe 1 qualifier and join New Zealand, Argentina, Tonga and Africa 1 qualifier in Pool C. The highlight for them would be a match against the world champions at Millennium Stadium on 2 October.
Romania currently occupy the Europe 2 spot and would therefore find themselves handed the challenge of facing France, Ireland, Italy and Canada in Pool D if they retain that position come the conclusion of competition.
Georgia and Romania lead the pack after accumulating 19 points at the halfway stage - each winning four and drawing their encounter in Bucharest last March. Russia currently sit in third place, five points behind, with Portugal a further seven adrift. Spain sit at the foot of the table, level on points with Belgium who have a superior points difference.
End of year Tests
All six teams were in action in a busy month of international rugby in November, enjoying contrasting fortunes.
Spain will be able to take encouragement from their South American tour which saw them defeat Chile 26-3 in Santiago, scoring four tries in the process, and then lose 16-15 to Uruguay - who face USA in the Americas 2 play-off in March - in Montevideo. They then returned home for a Test with Japan, losing 40-7.
Belgium also won their first end of year international, beating Tunisia 26-10 at home, but then suffered two defeats away to Hong Kong. Portugal also managed one win and two losses, dealing a 68-0 defeat to Brazil in Sao Paulo in the first ever Test match between the two sides in between defeats on home soil to Fiji (26-13) and Canada (52-8).
Georgia and Romania led the way by claiming the scalps of higher ranked opponents. Romania got their campaign off to a blistering start with last-gasp victories over Tonga (19-18) and Canada (21-20), but will be disappointed with the result of their final match of 2013, a 26-7 loss to Fiji.
The Lelos claimed the biggest scalp of all when they followed up a narrow win over Canada (19-15) and defeat to USA (25-23) with a 16-15 win over Samoa, a team currently ranked eighth in the IRB World Rankings.
This historic win against the Pacific Islanders highlighted the progress that Georgian rugby has made in recent years and, as George Nijaradze, President of the Rugby Union of Georgia told rugbyworldcup.com, public support and positive collaboration have been key to the recent successes of the national team.
“Rugby is fast becoming one of the most popular sports in Georgia, and if you ask people here which of our teams makes them most proud almost everyone will say the national rugby team. The Lelos are the people’s team; everyone here knows that they will give their all and fight until the very last minute, and the Georgian public really appreciate that.
“Rugby is growing rapidly here with the support of the IRB, FIRA-AER, local government and sponsors. Together we are doing a good job in developing the sport in Georgia and our collective efforts have been the reason for some of the results we have achieved in the last few years.”
Third placed Russia travelled to the United Kingdom in November to play Japan and the USA on neutral soil. Despite losing both Tests, Howard Thomas, Vice President of the Rugby Union of Russia, believes that there is much room for optimism in Russian rugby, and that the battle for the two automatic European qualification spots is far from over.
“I think that the bookmakers would have us as favourites to go through to the Répechage, but that doesn't mean for one minute that we can’t qualify automatically, and we all believe that we can. If we don’t qualify as Europe 1 or 2 we can still finish third and then qualification for RWC 2015 will be in our hands.
“Romania at home is a huge match for us. We came very close in Bucharest (last year), and were in the game up until the last 10 minutes. We've got a much stronger squad going into this RWC qualification campaign, and a much bigger pack.
“Georgia and Romania both have world-class forwards but we no longer fear getting blown away by them physically. They both present a physical challenge that not many countries in the world can offer, but we are well used to this now that we play these sides every year.
“In 2013 when we lost to Georgia, everyone said we were the better team, including the Georgians. We missed seven very kick-able kicks, which was obviously extremely frustrating. So if we put on another performance like that and make the most of our opportunities, anything is possible.
“We have to play with that same level of intensity against Romania and Georgia and that goes for all of our matches. The European Nations Cup is now a very competitive tournament and if we’re not at our best against Spain, Portugal or Belgium then we will also lose.”
Division 1A in 2014 is set to be one of the most competitive in years. With the final standings still far from decided, every single result will be critically important, not just for the six competing teams but also for the sides waiting to see who will join them in Pool C and D.
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