February is a very busy month in the rugby calendar. The Super 15 kicks off in the Southern Hemisphere and both European club rugby and the Six Nations are in full flow. In terms of developing rugby nations, the second tier Six Nations, known as the Euro Nations Cup (ENC) and organised by European rugby’s FIRA-AER governing body, has also just had its third round of fixtures.
The six participating countries are Belgium, Georgia, Portugal, Romania, Russia and Spain. All except Belgium have appeared in at least one edition of the Rugby World Cup. Georgia have had the most impressive recent results of these sides, losing admirably to Six Nations opponents at the 2007 (14-10 to Ireland) and 2011 (15-6 to Scotland) tournaments.
This year’s competition has been fierce and most fans’ only knowledge of the 2013 event will be of an ugly brawl during Belgium and Georgia’s match in Brussels. Back to the rugby and all contests have been tight affairs, with Romania’s 29-14 home win over Russia being the largest winning margin from the nine matches so far.
A Belgium side made up largely of amateur players and much fancied as the whipping boys of the tournament after only gaining promotion to second tier European rugby last year, came close to a famous win over Georgia, eventually succumbing 17-13 to a team filled with players from France’s illustrious Top 14 league, including Mamuka Gorgodze.
After three rounds, Romania and Georgia are joint leaders, on twelve points, and are unbeaten with three wins. The two Eastern European sides face each other in Bucharest in the last round of matches, in what could be an intriguing ENC Grand Slam decider. Spain prop up the table after two losses and a solitary draw against Belgium. No side has recorded a four try bonus point, highlighting how close this year’s matches have been.
ENC fixtures take place on the same weekends as the Six Nations ties and sides also play each other home and away in alternate years. In the fourth round of matches, to be held on March 9th, Spain travel to Tbilisi to face Georgia, Belgium host Romania in Brussels and Portugal take on Russia in Lisbon.
The final league positions in 2014, which includes all ENC results in 2013 and 2014, will largely determine the remaining European qualifying spots for the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Whilst the top two sides will automatically qualify for England 2015, the team that finishes third will have to play a series of playoff ties to stand a chance of joining them.
The first of these will be against the best lower ranked European nation that has made it through a series of league and knockout matches. Norway, Cyprus, Israel, the Netherlands and Germany are currently top of the lower level European rugby divisions (2D, 2C, 2B, 2A and 1B respectively) and are just some of the other European countries that have a chance of making it to this stage of the 2015 Rugby World Cup qualification process.
The winner of this tie will progress to the semi-final of the IRB’s Repechage tournament and will be drawn against the remaining African team. The other semi-final will be between the last Americas and Asian qualifiers. The two finalists will fight it out for the one remaining Rugby World Cup spot – Romania were the victors in 2010, beating Uruguay in a home and away playoff, and made it through as the 20th qualifying team to compete at the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
ENC, and other European (including Women’s, 7’s and age group rugby), results and fixtures can be found at the FIRA-AER website and for a detailed explanation of Rugby World Cup qualification please visit www.rugbyworldcup.com.
Did you know?
In 2002 Georgia played Russia in a ENC tie in Tbilisi, in front of more than 60,000 fans. Passionate affairs, these second tier European rugby ties.
By Alastair Pickering