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Guardian: Georgia and Romania Ready to Press Six Nations claims in Nations Cup Finale

Guardian: Georgia and Romania Ready to Press Six Nations Claims in Nations Cup Finale

The Six Nations championship reaches its conclusion this weekend with the title already decided. England are on the trail of the elusive grand slam in Paris while 2,000 thousand miles away in Tbilisi, Georgia will be looking for a clean sweep in the European Nations Cup.

The Central Stadium in the Georgia capital holds nearly 55,000 spectators and is expected to be close to capacity for the visit of Romania in a clash between not just the leading two teams in the tournament, but countries who look to have outgrown it with nowhere else to go.

The Wales head coach, Warren Gatland, this week asked the question whether, in the coming years, the Six Nations should consider having a play-off between the team that finishes bottom and the champions of the Nations Cup, with the winner competing in the main event.

Gatland was speaking a few days before Wales’s match against Italy, who have already secured their 11th wooden spoon in 17 tournaments since they swelled the Five Nations to six in 2000. His timing may have been unfortunate, although he qualified his remarks by saying they were not a comment on the Azzurri but a contribution to a debate on how the international game in Europe should be developed.

“We and Romania need to be given a chance, something to aspire to, and we have been saying this for a while,” said Lasha Khurtsidze, the Georgian Rugby Union general secretary. “Argentina were in our position not that long ago and look at them now since they were brought into the Rugby Championship. I think Gatland’s suggestion is definitely the way to go, but we need regular contact with Tier One nations first.

“We have played Ireland in 2014 and we have a fixture with Scotland. There might be something in 2017 and 2018, we don’t know, but the game gains nothing if countries like Georgia and Romania are only exposed to major opposition during World Cups and are largely left to their own devices in between tournaments. We are ambitious and we need to have an outlet for that.”

Since the European Nations Cup was changed to its current format in 2000, Georgia and Romania have vied for the title, apart from 12 years ago when Portugal were the champions. Unlike the Six Nations, the Nations Cup has relegation and promotion and bonus points, a system exploited by both Georgia and Romania who both showed during last year’s World Cup that they have shed their reputations for being strong at forward but not having much idea of what to do with the ball.

“Under Bernard Lapasset’s chairmanship, World Rugby has done a lot for second tier countries,” said Khurtsidze. “We have regular contact with the likes of Fiji, Japan and Canada, but breaking into the Six Nations is something else. I do not know if they are afraid at upsetting the old order, but the World Cup has opened up the game. Unless they want that tournament to be contested by 10 teams, they need to give others the chance to grow.

“We have not been able to speak to the Six Nations. With the help of World Rugby, we want to sit round a table with them and discuss the future. They might tell us that there is no prospect of Georgia and Romania having a chance of being part of the championship, in which case we would need to find alternatives. We are not going to stand still: rugby is developing. Our domestic league system is expanding and we have enjoyed success at Under-20 level. Georgians are passionate about the game, as people will see on Saturday.”

The showdown in Tbilisi will be streamed live, and free of charge, on RugbyEurope.tv. Georgia have already qualified for the 2019 World Cup having finished third in their pool in last year’s tournament, but Romania missed out after losing 32-22 to Italy at Exeter’s Sandy Park in their final group match.

“Our dream is to have a chance of playing in the Six Nations,” said Romania’s team manager, Horatiu Bargaunas. “We and Georgia proved during the World Cup that we play a good level of rugby and it is about being exposed to the next stage up. We cannot get fixtures against Tier One nations outside World Cups and did not have one between the 2011 and 2015 tournaments.

Guardian: Georgia and Romania Ready to Press Six Nations claims in Nations Cup Finale

“We went into last year’s World Cup with France and Ireland our first two opponents and it was a big step up for us. We welcome Warren Gatland’s comments because it keeps the debate going. The Six Nations opened the door to Italy in 2000 and when Romania were doing well in the 1980s there was talk about us joining. We fell off a bit and it did not happen, but our game is growing again and good young players are coming through the system. We just want to have something to aim for.”

World Rugby’s investment in Tier Two nations has allowed Georgia and Romania to bring in experienced foreign coaches: the former New Zealand Under-21 coach Milton Haig has been in charge of the Lelos since 2011, while Lynn Howells, who was a member of Graham Henry’s Wales management team, has managed Romania since 2012 and has another two years on his contract.

“Lynn has had a big impact with us,” said Bargaunas. “He has used his experience to build on what Romania was good at, forward play, not change everything. We are now far better behind and we hope that he stays on, making sure that we qualify for the 2019 World Cup. These are important years for Romanian rugby.”

The Georgia Rugby Union is hoping for a sell-out on Saturday. More than 15,000 tickets had been sold by the start of the week, but Khurtsidze pointed out that rugby fans there tend to turn up on the day rather than buy in advance. The match may attract a bigger crowd than Dublin’s Aviva Stadium for the match between Ireland and Scotland and drop a hint to the Six Nations that it is facing a spring rising.

Jones draws on amateur experience 

England enter the final round of the Six Nations with their sixth chance of finishing with a victory that would seal the grand slam, and once again they are on the road, even if Paris is a new destination.

They have played for the prize in Edinburgh, Dublin (three times) and Cardiff, succeeding once, against Ireland in 2003, the year they went on to win the World Cup by defeating Eddie Jones’s Australia in the final. And in 1999, the last year of the Five Nations, they were mugged by Wales at Wembley.

Unlike 2011 and 2013, matches a number of the current squad including Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole, Ben Youngs and James Haskell were involved in, England have already secured the title: there will be no repeat of Dublin five years ago when England, after losing, had to wait until later that night before being confirmed as champions and went through a hurried presentation ceremony that was low on smiles.

What remains the same is that failure to secure the grand slam will secure more attention than winning the title, although much has been made in the past four years of England failing to finish higher, or lower, than second. France’s continued underwhelming form will see to that, although they stirred themselves in 2014 when Ireland came to the Stade de France needing to win to secure the championship and only just made it to the line.

Eddie Jones has already succeeded, less than four months after taking over from Stuart Lancaster and starting from the ruin of the World Cup campaign. A question players are being asked this week is the difference he has made given that he is largely working with the group of players he inherited.

One clue was a remark he made on Sunday night after France’s defeat to Scotland at Murrayfield meant England could not be overhauled at the top of the table. He would, he said, be taking the players out for a few beers to mark the occasion.

It reflected his entry point, a team that had played badly rather than, in the case of Lancaster four years before, played up. The antics of the England players in New Zealand during the 2011 World Cup meant that the new regime had to preach the virtues of temperance. The squad had a reputation to salvage and it was not the time to talk about going out for a beer or two.

Jones has developed a reputation for being a martinet, a workaholic who pushes his charges, together with his coaches and back-up team, to the limit. It ignores his ability to separate work and relaxation: when players have down-time, he does not want them to spend it in the gym, keeping minds, as well as bodies, fresh; tune in, zone out.

Jones played in the amateur era and while recognising, as he showed when reprimanding the prop Joe Marler for his insulting comment to the Wales prop Samson Lee, that the law of the jungle that operated then is no longer appropriate, he also appreciates that some of the values that once stood, not least the way players who are drawn from a number of clubs bond, are still relevant.

His former club Saracens have long recognised that and their No8 Billy Vunipola remarked after the World Cup that perhaps the players should have gone to the pub occasionally to get to know each other better away from their training base. Vunipola said this week that he had only just got to know Haskell and that the squad has a closeness that it lacked before.

If England do become rattled on Saturday, it will be down to France, not the occasion. If the pressure got to players in 2011 and 2013, it is far less likely to do so this week because of the way Jones has approached the game, drawing on his experience.

Referees must act on eye issue 

Warren Gatland made a surprising slip this week when he described Joe Marler’s “Gypsy boy” remark to Samson Lee as “banter”.

The Wales head coach is normally sure-footed with the media, and while he was trying to support his player, who wanted the apology he received from Marler at half-time at Twickenham to mark the end of the affair, he harked back to a time when television programmes like Love Thy Neighbour passed for humour.

The reaction to Marler’s words, never mind that they were spoken in the heat of the battle, did not amount to political correctness gone mad. Why should it be acceptable, never mind that it used to be, to insult, denigrate and stigmatise various groups and minorities in society?

It was at one time regarded as acceptable for a player to throw a punch on the rugby field, and worse, but what coach would advocate that behaviour now? Times change, sometimes for the better.

Marler was cited, belatedly, for elbowing his Wales opposite number, Rob Evans, in the face 15 minutes into the game (the pre-match build-up had seen both sides accuse the other of illegal scrummaging and saw two props cited and another sent to the sin-bin).

He was found guilty of the offence at a disciplinary hearing in London on Wednesday but was not suspended as the panel did not regard the elbowing as an offence worthy of a red card. That was a fair decision, but the day before the Wales prop Tomas Francis had received an eight-week ban for putting his hand on the face of his opposite number, Dan Cole.

That offence was reviewed by the referee and the television match official, as had been the case in January when Chris Ashton’s England recall was ended by his citing for putting his hand hear the eyes of an opponent during Saracens’ European Champions Cup victory over Ulster at Allianz Park. No action was taken against either player, apart from a penalty.

Numerous disciplinary panels have, in imposing deterrent bans, ruled a hand near an opponent’s eyes is a red card offence and surely it is now time for referees to act on that. It is not a question of intent or injury caused, but a bid to get players to go lower to minimise the risk of a serious eye injury.

Pocock to take a break 

The Australia back-rower David Pocock has signed a new contract with the Australian Rugby Union that will take him through to the 2019 World Cup, but he will have a year off in 2017.

Pocock has been linked to a move to a club in England, France or Japan, but he is more interested in studying and freshening up rather than giving his body another battering.

“This is my 11th season of professional rugby and I really want to continue, but I feel like a bit of a break will be good for the mind, good for the body and probably good for the soul too,” he said. “A bunch of things have been said about what I will be doing, but none that I have heard are true.

“We will wait and see. The exciting thing will be just getting away, freshening up and really coming back excited and, I hope, physically and mentally good to go.”

Still want more? 

Billy Vunipola is happy to lead from the front, he tells Robert Kitson.

US professional rugby a step closer as five teams begin training for kick-off, writes Martin Pengelly.

Eddie Jones now knows how much a grand slam would mean to England, reckons Robert Kitson.

Look back on last weekend’s Six Nations action with our talking points from the fourth round of matches.

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