Romania have moved three points clear at the top of the Rugby World Cup 2019 qualification standings in Europe after a hard-fought 25-15 win over Russia in freezing conditions in Cluj.
Rivals Spain, however, remain in the driving seat to take the direct route to Japan as Europe 1, and join Ireland, Scotland, hosts Japan and the Play-Off Winner in Pool A, as they have one qualification match more to play than the Oaks.
Romania’s failure to secure a bonus point means that Los Leones now just need to win their remaining Rugby Europe Championship fixtures against Germany and Belgium, on 11 and 18 March respectively, without worrying about finishing three tries clear of their opponents to claim bonus points.
Here is the ranking for @rugbyworldcup European qualifiers after games played today in #REC2018 . Spain (@ferugby ) and @RugbyRomania are in the race for qualification. Still 2 rounds for the final ranking.— Rugby Europe (@rugby_europe) March 3, 2018
Details on https://t.co/duIKEh3AQNpic.twitter.com/QPZc2QJyme
Played in Cluj on a bitterly cold day, the match was not a great spectacle with both sides struggling to get into their rhythm and relying on tactical kicking in an attempt to seize control. Fittingly, the first score did not come from open play but a penalty try to Romania, French referee Alexandre Ruiz running under the sticks after Russia had repeatedly infringed at scrum time.
The home side continued to dominate territory and possession, but the Bears stood firm and turned over their opponents to set up the counterattack which led to their first points, a 30th-minute try for Dmitri Gerasimov after the centre joined the back of a maul.
Yuri Kushnarev missed the conversion but knocked over his first penalty attempt to hand the Russians an 8-7 lead. Shortly after a further offence at the breakdown resulted in scrum-half Valentin Calafeteanu responding with a penalty of his own. With the score 10-8 at half-time, the match was very much in the balance.
Romania’s failure to look after the ball continued to hurt them at the start of the second half but, on 49 minutes, they strung together a multi-phase move and swiftly worked the ball right to Stephen Shennan who was left with a simple run in.
The Bears would not lie down and drew level on 70 minutes when full-back Ramil Gaisin intercepted a fumbled pass in midfield and scored their second try which he also converted to bring the score at 15-15.
This was as good as it got for the Russians, though, as Romania played their best rugby of the match in the last 10 minutes, first scoring through centre Paula Kinikinilau after a floated pass from full-back Catalin Fercu and then replacement hooker Eugen Capatana from a rolling maul.
The Oaks now lead the table with 24 points, but they have only one game left in qualification terms, against Belgium in Buzau on 11 March. If they get maximum points from that game and Spain fail to get a bonus-point victory against Germany and Belgium the sides will be tied at the top on 29 points. However, the aggregate score from the head-to-head across the 2017 and 2018 tournaments is 25-23 in Spain’s favour.
Lelos tough it out
Spain headed to Tbilisi for their top-of-the-table clash against Rugby Europe Championship leaders Georgia with a much-changed team from the one that famously beat Romania a fortnight ago.
Coach Santiago Santos opted to rest most of his frontline stars for the big RWC 2019 qualification battles ahead, but he will have been encouraged by the performance of some of his fringe players who made the Lelos work hard for a 23-10 victory.
All of the points in the first half came from penalties with Ioseb Matiashvili kicking three to one from his opposite number Mathieu Peluchon, who also struck the upright with an earlier attempt.
Georgia’s scrum power led to a penalty try being awarded in the 52nd-minute but a near-capacity, 30,000 crowd inside the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium did not see any more points scored until stoppage time, a brilliant cover tackle from Spain right wing Javier Carrion having denied Alexandre Todua in the 67th minute.
Spain were first to score when the clock ticked into the red, replacement forward Lionel Tauli forcing his way over from close range after Spain had been camped on Georgia’s line for what seemed like an interminable period of time.
There was still time for the home side to respond, however, Giorgi Melikidze crashing over to seal the win with the last play of the game.
Meanwhile, Germany’s woes continued in Brussels with a 69-15 defeat to fellow strugglers Belgium. It was the Black Devils’ third-highest score in test history and only the sixth time they had passed the half-century mark.
Right winger Thomas Wallraff started and finished the scoring as Belgium managed 10 tries in a win that boosts their hopes of avoiding a play-off against the Rugby Europe Trophy winners for a place in next year’s Championship.
While still pointless from their first three matches, Germany will take some encouragement from the fact they scored their first tries of the campaign, second-row Jens Listmann and centre Sam Harris crossing in the final quarter.
Records also tumbled as the Netherlands emphatically beat Poland 71-30 in front of a 4,000-strong crowd in Amsterdam.
Openside flanker Huey van Vliet scored a hat-trick as the Netherlands posted 11 tries – the most they have achieved in a single test – on their way to a record test score. Fly-half Liam McBride added four conversions in each half for a 16-point haul.
The Netherlands are now level with Portugal on 14 points but have played a game more than their promotion rivals, who still have designs on a place at RWC 2019 via the play-off route.