A Rugby Europe Championship like no other
With last year’s competition wrapped up, it is time for the Rugby Europe Championship 2021. Not only it is the return to a normal(ish) international calendar for these tier 2 nations but it marks the start of Rugby Union World Cup qualification. With the tournament about to get underway, let’s take a brief look at those starting the race to France 2023.
Before we’ve kicked off, the controversy has already started. With the final team not confirmed, a truncated fixture list is in order. It’s hard not to think that Spain have drawn the short straw and player availability could be an issue. With that said, let’s dive in.
🏆| Two fantastic matches to look forward to in Round 1 of the Rugby Europe Championship 2021, which forms part of the qualifying process for @France2023!
— Rugby Europe (@rugby_europe) March 4, 2021
And the Winner is…
Georgia. Yes, the team that is simultaneously the most important and boring team in this tournament. Georgia’s free ticket is gone after failing to finish in the top three of their group in Japan 2019 and they will have to qualify for France 2023 on the field. Plenty has been written about their growth being stunted by the Six Nations closed shop and they have a right to feel aggrieved by this. Sadly, with the financial effects of Covid forcing financial considerations to take precedence, this is unlikely to change. They will win this year, probably sweep and anything else will be a huge upset. However, many fear the glass ceiling placed on their growth has turned into a brick wall.
The Real Competition
Spain, Romania and Russia. These are the three who will all feel that 2nd spot is theirs for the taking. Spain will use the injustice of the last qualification to spur them on and have recorded back-to-back second-place finishes in the Rugby Europe Championship. Russia, after fluking their way into an opening game versus Japan in 2019, has benefitted from the extra income and exposure. Indeed, the Russian Federation is still keen on hosting the 2027 Rugby Union World Cup and will want to continue the sport’s momentum. Meanwhile, Romania, for whom the Japanese Rugby Union World Cup was the first they had missed, will be looking to re-establish this season. Of all the traditional challengers, Romania seems most at risk and their hegemony as ‘best of the rest’ looks to be over.
Portugal: The Dark Horse
Overlook them at your peril, Portugal may well upset the applecart in this qualification cycle. In 2018 they were a hidden victim of the eligibility scandal, as instead of playing winless Germany in the playoff game, they would lose to a much stronger Romania. Portugal would sweep the Rugby Europe Trophy in 2019 and beat Germany to earn a place in the 2020 Championship.
However, Portugal’s first year back at the second level saw a win against Romania and a single point loss to Russia. A good showing against Spain back in February will have them thinking three wins are possible. If Portugal set themselves up well this year, they will be in with a great chance to qualify for their first World Cup since 2007.
Netherlands or Belgium
Another reason for the uniqueness of this tournament is we still don’t know who the final team is. Belgium’s enforced forfeit vs Romania meant they are in the play-out with The Netherlands. The Netherlands were undefeated in tier three of European Rugby last year and will now have a great chance to give themselves an opportunity to play some of Europe’s rising nations. Portugal’s competitiveness at the Rugby Europe Championship 2020 after their promotion will give The Netherlands confidence that, if they do come up, they could bridge the gap.
It all kicks off this weekend with Portugal taking on Georgia but the massive game is between Russia and Romania. A win for either gives them a vital victory over a rival whilst a defeat piles on all the pressure. Spain will have to wait until 14th March to take on Georgia, before facing Romania and Portugal away in consecutive weeks. You couldn’t ask for a tougher draw for a World Cup Qualifying year but even one win will keep Spanish hopes alive, two will have them dreaming.
#XVdelLeón | ⚡️Comienza la carrera hacia el Mundial de Francia 2023 para los Leones⚡️
‼️🏉Sólo a 10 partidos de cumplir el sueño de todo un país.
— España Rugby (@ferugby) March 4, 2021
Crouch, Bind, Set
Unlike the Six Nations, this actually matters. The Six Nations this season was vital for commercial obligations, whilst next year the game will just be glad to have supporters and sponsors back. In short, what happens on the field in the Six Nations is the least important part of the tournament. However, in the Rugby Europe Championship 2021, every win takes the teams one step closer to France. Let’s assume Georgia is going to sweep, so three wins keeps you alive and four means you have one foot in France. With crowds back in 2022, a Rugby Union World Cup qualification cycle beginning, and every game a high stakes showdown, the Rugby Europe Championship 2021 is shaping up to be a Championship like no other.
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