The Rugby Europe Championship 2021 is now on hold until this summer, with a Covid disrupted tournament still a year away from normality.
Last weekend had a massive role to play in who would be putting themselves in pole position to head to France. A fresh Portugal took on a winless Spain, whilst Romania had the best chance to beat Georgia in years. As it happened, a shock was delivered in the tournament but ….not the one that was scheduled.
Triunfo and Desastre! Portugal pull off major upset
Following a devastating defeat to Portugal, if someone required a visual image of what ‘rock bottom’ looks like they would need only to look at the faces of the Spanish players in Lisbon last weekend. Just two weeks after their spirited performance against Georgia, Spanish rugby has reached its nadir.
Firstly, let’s get some excuses out of the way. Yes, the fixture list has been put together in a way that clearly favoured Romania over Spain and when the President of Rugby Europe is Romanian, there’s a conflict of interest. This is especially so since it is the same man who had a key part to play in the Rugby Europe referee debacle at the last Rugby World Cup qualification cycle (which would cost both Romania and Spain a Rugby World Cup berth).
So Spain having to play Portugal; when Portugal had a week’s rest (whilst Romania played a game that is not vital to their campaign against Georgia), is not balanced.
However, Spain held command of this game with a 14-0 lead inside 20 minutes before Portugal struck back with a try of their own. Spain would score again and were a minute from going into half-time with a commanding 21-7 lead. Then, the turning point of the match came when Portugal – who were victims of a last-minute try against Romania – became last-minute specialists themselves.
A run from Nuno Sousa Guedes cut right through Spain with less than forty seconds of the first half left, leading to a Jerónimo Portela try. Spain had gifted Portugal a way back into the game just two minutes after their own score. Desastre (disaster).
— Rugby Europe (@rugby_europe) March 27, 2021
Spain must have gone into the dressing room and smashed the self-destruct button for 15 minutes. When they emerged, the horror show and collapse in composure once again appeared. By the 65th minute, Portugal had blown Spain away and the game as a contest, was all but over. Worse, Spain went from a 14 point lead to failing to secure even a bonus point loss.
Spain’s seemingly innate ability to implode is something that needs to be addressed before they play Russia in June. There’s no getting away from the hole Spain has dug themselves into but, just as momentum can disappear in just two games, it can be recovered in two. How? A vital win versus Russia at home, followed by a victory over the still yet-to-be-decided sixth team and Spanish Rugby hopes of World Cup qualification would be alive once more.
Mind you, a loss to Russia in June and another painful ‘Spanish inquest’ must be required.
For promotion poster boys and Rugby Europe Championship 2021 dark horses Portugal, it’s their first win over Spain in nine years and there will be more about Portugal’s incredible rise from the third tier to Rugby World Cup hopefuls next week. Triunfo (triumph).
Georgia keep Rugby Europe Championship 2021 interesting
So with Portugal beating Spain, one part of the nightmare scenario was complete. Were Romania to beat a Georgia side (who could’ve been tempted to take their foot off the gas) and the race to France 2023 would’ve been over before it had even begun. Thankfully, for the sake of the tournament, Georgia did just enough to keep their noses in front of a Romania side who were 10-0 down after ten minutes with 14 men. Despite Romania coming back into the game and Georgia being reduced to 14 men for the final 20 minutes, Georgia did enough to all but secure their Rugby Union World Cup 2023 place.
— Rugby Europe (@rugby_europe) March 28, 2021
Still, all to play for in Rugby Europe contest
So as the Rugby Europe Championship takes a break until Belgium vs Netherlands play-off in May, we already know Georgia will be going to France. Though thanks to Russia beating Romania in Week One, the race for second place is still alive. With all teams still needing to play either Belgium or Netherlands in the summer, there’s a possibility that Portugal, Russia and Spain are all one win behind Romania going into 2022. For Spain, that would represent a massive escape after a nightmare start.
With crowds back in 2022 (touch wood), the spectacle of the Six Nations could easily push Rugby Europe even further to the periphery. Second-tier Rugby Union in Europe badly needs the commercial and exposure boost from the Rugby Europe Championship being worth watching. A Rugby World Cup race that is already wrapped up would’ve represented a significant blow for a tournament but that has been avoided.
We know Georgia will be going to France but, as the Rugby Europe Championship 2021 pauses for breath, who will join them? Thankfully, there’s still plenty of drama to be delivered before this question is answered.
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