Georgia and Romania remain on course
By Jon Newcombe
Georgia and Romania took another step towards Rugby World Cup 2015 qualification after comfortable wins over Belgium and Portugal respectively in the European Nations Cup Division 1A on Saturday.
After maintaining their unbeaten records in the six-team division, they remain favourites to book their places at England 2015 as Europe 1 and 2 – the reward for sides finishing first and second in Division 1A, the pinnacle of international European rugby below the Six Nations.
As things stand, defending champions Georgia would progress as the Europe 1 qualifier and join New Zealand, Argentina, Tonga and the Africa 1 qualifier in Pool C. 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 are still there at the conclusion of competition in mid-March.
Despite a slippery playing surface and sub-zero temperatures at the Avchala Stadium in Tbilisi, Georgia managed to bag a bonus-point in the 35-0 win over Belgium to move one point clear of Romania at the top of the standings.
Indeed, it took the Lelos little over half an hour to score the all-important fourth try, Merab Kvirikashvili (2), Konstantine Mikautadze and Merab Sharikadze crossing in a dominant first-half display. Kvirikashvili also kicked a penalty and a conversion as Georgia led 25-0 at the interval.
Captain Irakli Machkhaneli added a fifth try 15 minutes into the second half before flanker Giorgi Chkhaidze concluded the scoring in the 65th minute.
The defeat was particularly disappointing for Belgium right wing Tornike Megrelidze who was up against his native country. It also leaves Belgium propping up the table and facing a three-way fight with Spain and Portugal to avoid relegation to Division 1B.
Romania miss bonus point
Florin Vlaicu kicked 14 points and set up Romania’s second try with a superb piece of skill as the Oaks beat Portugal 24-0 in the impressive surroundings of the Cluj Arena.
After two penalties from Vlaicu handed Romania an early 6-0 lead, hooker Andrei Radoi, of English Championship strugglers Ealing, got the first try of the match on 34 minutes when he was driven over from close range. Vlaicu added the conversion from wide out and then kicked his third penalty to put Romania 16-0 up at the break.
Vlaicu added another three-pointer shortly after the restart as Romania’s dominance up front continued to tell. However they were only able to score one more try through centre Csaba Gal, who profited from a sublime behind-the-back pass from Vlaicu to cross in the corner.
Third-placed Russia kept themselves in the hunt for a top two spot after surviving the debilitating effects of a sickness bug and a brave second-half fightback from Spain to record a narrow 28-25 win in Madrid.
Russia had stormed into a 23-3 lead after tries from Alexey Makovetskiy and Andrey Ostrokov and 13 points from the boot of fly half Yury Kushnarev, but the Bears had to wait until the 71st minute to score again as Spain reeled off 15 points without reply to bring them back to within a try of the visitors.
Livewire scrum half Pablo Feijoo scored Spain’s opening try on 34 minutes and full back Mathieu Peluchon kicked his second penalty on the stroke of half-time to make the score 23-11.
After a disjointed and scoreless third quarter, Jersey-born flanker Matthew Cook grabbed Spain’s second try and Peluchon was successful with the conversion.
Relief at final whistle
The outstanding Kushnarev gave Russia a bit of breathing space when he dotted down shortly afterwards, although the fly half was unable to add the extras.
Spain refused to lie down, though, and hit back against a visibly tiring Russian side when flanker Gautier Gibouin scored with two minutes to go.
Russia had to survive one final scare when a penalty attempt at goal fell short and Spain counter-attacked from deep with the clock in the red. Los Leones worked their way up field to the edge of the Russia 22, but after a few phases of play they lost the ball in contact and the visitors were able to clear their lines.
“I was wondering if the lead at half-time was going to be enough because our domestic season finishes in October and the players that weren’t involved in the November Tests haven’t played any rugby since then,” Russia head coach Kingsley Jones said.
“I thought we were much the better side for the first 50 minutes before we tired and were never in any real danger of losing the game, although, in the end, I was relieved to hear the final whistle.”
Russia’s match with Romania in Krasnodar on Saturday could prove decisive in determining the final shake-up at the top of the ENC table. They are five points behind their rivals Romania knowing a win would put them right back in contention for first or second place in the standings.
Should Russia end the competition in third place they will still have another chance to qualify for RWC 2015 as victory over the Division 1B winner or the Netherlands will pitch them into the Repechage later in the year.