After four consecutive wins in the Rugby Europe Championship 2021, Georgia look to be on course to qualify for Rugby World Cup 2023 as Europe 1.
Matches in both this year’s Rugby Europe Championship and the 2022 tournament double up as RWC 2023 qualifiers and the Lelos have already opened up a nine-point gap at the top of the standings.
The competition will resume in July, when the winner of the 29 May play-off between Belgium or the Netherlands will join the Rugby Europe Championship as its sixth team.
While it would take a dramatic downturn in fortunes for Georgia to miss out on a reunion with RWC 2019 opponents Wales, Australia and Fiji, plus face the Final Qualifier Winner, in Pool C in France, the identity of Europe 2 is anyone’s guess.
Each team below the undefeated defending champions appears capable of beating one another, although second-placed Romania – the only team other than Georgia to have played four matches – do have a four-point buffer as things stand.
The Oaks shrugged off the disappointment of a narrow 18-13 defeat to Russia in round one to record victories in similarly tight encounters against Portugal (28-27) and Spain (22-16) before losing to 14-man Georgia (28-17) in their most recent outing.
Failure to qualify for Japan 2019 was a bitter blow to Romania, and they’ll be desperate to bounce back and make it to France.
The other three main contenders have also experienced a Rugby World Cup before – Spain in 1999, Portugal in 2007 and Russia twice, in 2011 and 2019 – and will want to do so again.
Russia have only played two fixtures so far and victories against Portugal and Spain, and against the play-off winner, by the end of the year would do wonders for their chances of playing in a European-based Rugby World Cup for the first time.
Spain need to get their campaign up and running and fast. A run of three straight defeats, featuring two consecutive red cards, have made for a disappointing start to the Rugby Europe Championship for Los Leones who, as the highest-ranked team behind Georgia, had high hopes of making it through when the competition started in February.
After defeats to Georgia and Romania, who stung Os Lobos with two late tries to win by the narrowest of margins, Portugal opened their account with a 43-28 win against Spain last weekend.
Meanwhile, it will be fascinating to see what impact the introduction of either Belgium or the Netherlands will have on the competition.
While Belgium are well-known in Rugby Europe Championship circles, a play-off victory for the Netherlands would definitely shake things up in the race to join South Africa, Scotland, Ireland and the Asia/Pacific 1 qualifier in Pool B at RWC 2023.
The Netherlands stand on the verge of competing in the Rugby Europe Championship for the first time in nigh on two decades and would come with an element of surprise and a brand of free-flowing rugby that could suit the firmer grounds that the warmer weather in July will bring.
All will not be lost for teams that fail to finish in first or second. The third-placed team across the 2021 and 2022 tournaments will get another chance to qualify through the Final Qualification Tournament, due to be played in November 2022.
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