Rugby Europe, between chaos and doubt: is this how it ends (?)

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Rugby Europe
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - MARCH 18: Players of Spain and of Belgium confront each other after the Rugby World Cup 2019 Europe Qualifier match between Belgium and Spain held at Little Heysel next to King Baudouin Stadium on March 18, 2018 in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Rugby isn’t the same Ye Old Sport it was back in the 90’s. Not even the same as in the early years of the 21st century. The sport changed for better and for worse, it got bigger and smaller. It got more spectacular and decadent, living between paradoxes. And Rugby Europe epitomizes those issues.

‘Better’ as the players do get improved healthcare and psychological support, there are a lot more spectacular games too. ‘Worse’ as injuries seem to pile up, managers and coaches are released more regularly and Tier2 and Tier3 players get pressured from their clubs not to play for their countries in many of their Test matches – especially so in Rugby Europe competition.

Rugby Europe in ‘chaos’

‘Bigger’ as it has more events, competitions and games. ‘Smaller’ as there is less space to expand rugby. A single mistake in the development of a T3 or T2 country can comprise it’s growth. At a time where growth is the key, when the recent actions of players is in conflict with the spirit of the sport, then the fans and stakeholders can be turned away.

THE WORLD STOPPED TO WATCH THE EUROPEAN CHAOS

Case in point: what will World Rugby do on the matter of Belgium versus Spain? In the doubts that are surrounding the officiating team.

Rugby World magazine have already talked about some of the major points and questions (you can read it all here: Eligibility controversy), about an important game that decided who qualified for the 2018 Rugby World Cup. The chaos developed around who needed to go to a playoff phase to reach that goal? and who would officiate.

Spain lost to Belgium and with it, Los Leonas lost a rare opportunity to qualify for an RWC. Romania on the other hand, thanked the Belgians’ effort and therefore qualified for the tournament.

Rugby Europe officials under scrutiny

When Rugby Europe (RE) referee Vlad  Iordaschescu blew the final whistle, he would not have known that that was going to be his last match at this level. The Spanish players started running towards him. In chaotic scenes, officials were shoved violently, with Spanish players vehemently complaining about his performance.

Thanks to the World Wide Web and Social Media (see above) those scenes went viral, launching an online epidemic that no one would ever imagine the proportions it would grow to. People started re-watching the game, counting how many mistakes the RE match officials made. Counting how many penalties Belgium and Spain where awarded and if there was any type of prejudice against Los Leones.

Summing it all up, the majority of the fans agreed: the Romanian officiating team had a poor game. Earlier decisions; where a conflict of interest became apparent, seemed to shape things in order for Spain to find it difficult to secure direct entry to RWC 2019.

After three weeks of rumors, postponed meeting with all parties, a formal complaint from Spain was made. And even with World Rugby ‘surveillance’ on the matter, questions still loom on what will happen to Spain, Romania and importantly, the processes and integrity of Rugby Europe.

Developments in Belgium v Spain RWC Qualifier debacle

The newest piece of information points to a matter that Romania, Spain and Belgium used ineligible players in some of 2017 and 2018 Rugby Europe’s Championship competition. It has provoked questions over past matches, and seems to point to a breakdown in qualification rulings.

What does this mean? Well, according to the rules Romania and Belgium would forfeit their games, with the Romanians losing their World Cup seat.

But wait, there’s more.

In the relegation battle, might Germany (the team that went last in 2018) play against Portugal (the winner of Rugby Europe’s Trophy competition, earning a promotion playoff) or, will Romania and Belgium go to the second tier of Rugby Europe? The ramifications continue and it is not a good look.

Any fan from England, New Zealand, Australia or, any professional rugby country would rightly ask ‘how can a Continental Rugby institution [Rugby Europe] that regulates rugby, let this slip right by them?

As it seems, Romania was caught completely off-guard concerning Sione Faka’osilea’s illegibility. And quite rightly, they will now face the consequences.

Yet, this is not just an amateurish move by a professional Rugby Union which have never missed a World Cup since its beginning in 1987. Rather, it’s a situation like no other, with a scent of a Mexican Soap Opera and the actions of an amateurish type of organization. Beyond this complicated situation, are there any more problems within Rugby Europe?

Youth Competitions under funded and ill-prepared

Consider the example of the upcoming Under 20’s European competition. Portugal will host an important event that will decide who will qualify for the World Rugby U20 Trophy (2nd divison). Eight teams, including the host will compete for that spot:

  • Russia, Netherlands, Romania, Poland, Ukraine, Spain and Portugal.

But if you were reading carefully, you will notice that we only mentioned seven teams – who is the eighth contender? A composite team of Portuguese players from the Centre-North of Portugal has to be included. Why? Germany, Belgium, Czech Republic, Switzerland and even Luxembourg refused the invitation to play in the competition, due to budget restraints.

If this sounds weird, it gets weirder. Portugal will have to play against their own Centre-North Portuguese counterpart!

How will the other teams see a game between Portugal versus Portugal B? Won’t the other teams suspect that the Portuguese union is favoring one side over the other. Fans might, so the inference is there. Furthermore, how can Portugal build two different teams and still be competitive or title-contenders?

For Last Word on Rugby, this situation might overshadow the competition proper. It has the possibility to launch serious of doubts between the RE playing unions. However, Rugby Europe’s failings and flaws go back further than this and there are other examples to show.

Another case of poor organization from RE was the 2017 European Under 18 Championship. Half of the national teams stayed in hotels/motels that were not prepared to host sports teams. Examples existed of inadequate food, hotels located far from the training grounds or any convenience store. For many, a ‘first World problem’ was no Wifi internet connection. How could teams possibly communicate with their own organizations?

Rugby Europe didn’t deliver the best conditions to the teams, were ill-prepared and summarily embarrassed.

Some teams then were able to change their accommodation – which showed that there were alternatives/better options from the beginning than those chosen by the organization. This is a perfect example of how Rugby Europe can’t deliver a serious competition – even at a youth level. They have a history of changing and masking complicated situations, with ill-prepared and failed solutions.

Changing Rules to appease whom?

You can also question why Rugby Europe changed their relegation and promotion rules in 2016? For those who don’t know how it works, every year the team that comes last has to play a relegation playoff against the winner of the Trophy division.

Belgium and Portugal played in 2017’s playoff, in a match for which Belgians called in most of their star players from French ProD2. They designed a strong side that wiped out the Portuguese hopes. The Lobos didn’t have the same time to prepare for the game, or the same conditions, as their players returning from abroad only had a week to train with the squad.

This begs another question: the fact that teams from T2 or T3 nations can’t play most of the time with their best squad. It has been [and might always be] that the professional clubs pressure athletes to play as little as possible for their nations. Difficult to delve in this matter, as this is not the focus of the piece – but it is a conversation World Rugby and Rugby Europe need to have!

RE built a relegation/promotion system that can keep the same T2 or T3 Unions in the same divisions for years to come, without ever progressing. If it was a just system issue, there wouldn’t be any problem but it isn’t. Richer nations, like Belgium and Germany can afford to pay players to return and play for their Nations, convincing with ease, French or South-African born players that have qualified under World Rugby doctrine.

The rich get richer, while the poor never get promoted

Portugal on the other hand, doesn’t have the budget or the conditions to pay a week’s worth of salary to leading players like Mike Tadjer, Julien Bardy, Aurelien Béco or Samuel Marques (all playing in TOP14). It is harder to convince them to wear the Portuguese jersey, when they have to sacrifice more then a German or Belgium national.

Germany and Belgium opt to pay players to be ‘professionals’ rather than promoting or developing their youth teams – both are two or three levels lower, compared to Portugal or Spain for example. This shows how European Rugby is flawed, in it’s philosophy.

Why change the rules two years before the Rugby World Cup? And why increase the division between Rugby nations?

In the last three years, Rugby Europe keeps making fatal errors and overshadows its role in supporting and developing T2 nations. The onus should be on parity….not promotion through self-interest.

Of note though, while Germany can pay to draw it’s players from their clubs, why can they not budget for the U18 Championship? Even with RE, the unions themselves have different ideals and goals.

Is this ‘the end’ for Rugby Europe?

Illegibility errors, strange refereeing nominations, flawed support for competition organizations, favoring certain nations and so on – it all shows that Rugby Europe is an amateur rugby association, that makes the same mistakes time and time again.

Rugby Europe’s chairman, Octavian Morariu; a former president of the Romanian Rugby Union and Romanian Olympic and Sports Committee, has not made a strong statement on these subjects. The head of the continental organization, is showing a frail and obtuse position in all of this.

As the iconic voice of Jim Morrison said in the melodic song The End [published in 1967], “This is the End (…) The End of laughter and soft lies.” Maybe Rugby Europe has reached its end? And now, with World Rugby’s below investigation going through the malaise, maybe it’s the time for a make-over. Time for an new direction for European Rugby nations.

 

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2 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t really know what your Issue with the German Rugby Federation is, but basically everything you wrote above is not true.
    1)
    Germany’s budget two years ago was about 1,2 M€. As the departed with their main sponsor, it should now be drastically lower. Portugal’s budget one year ago was 1,4 M€.
    So in fact, Portugal is definitely the richer of those two.
    (Link: https://www.publico.pt/2017/03/24/desporto/noticia/do-ponto-de-vista-orcamental-vivemos-uma-falacia-insustentavel-1766310)
    2)
    Germany doesn’t pay to draw players away from their club. This is a blatant lie.
    Most of the German team (even before the departure of the main sponsor and “his” players) is located in Germany and plays in the german Bundesliga. The few players that play abroad (mostly in France) are held back by their respective clubs most of the time.
    3)
    There is not a single professional rugby player in Germany.
    There are a few players being paid, but they are working as coaches or something like that.
    4)
    As written above, the German Federation is in deep financial issues after the departure of the main sponsor and is therefor not able to afford fielding a team in the U20 Championship.
    5)
    Germany’s U18 just won the RE U18 Trophy and got promoted to the Championship. They are not playing “two or three levels lower then Portugal”.

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