This weekend sees the kick off of Rugby Europe Championship 2018, which is the premier rugby union competition outside of the Six Nations Championship in Europe.
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This year’s Rugby European Championship (REC) counts as qualifier for the 2019 Rugby World Cup (RWC) for the Europe area. The results are considered on a 2-year aggregate of the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Matches involving Georgia are excluded as Lelos have already qualified. In the case of a Georgian win, the runner up will qualify as Europe 1 while the second place squad will advance to the qualifying play offs.
Rugby Europe Championship 2018
The current trophy holders are up and coming after an upward trend both in ranking and in play quality. The only hiccup was the surprising loss to Germany at the beginning of last year’s Rugby European Cup. Despite that, the Oaks managed to bounce back and win the competition after a close finale versus Georgian Lelos.
This year, the Oaks are starting with the best squad available and additionally we see two big comebacks. Backrow Ursache (Oyonnax captain) and Coste (Carcassonne) after two and three years out respectively. The team assembled for first game versus Germany looks like a statement of the seriousness they are approaching qualification for RWC 2019. They will add strength to a team which advanced in World Rugby’s rankings last year. They kept close to Japan away in June, defeated Canada abroad and in last November won home versus Samoa and narrowly lost to Tonga. Even if the Oaks are considered a forward based team, their game plan is improving in the backs partly because of foreign imports and partly because of the contribution of a very experienced coaching team which is rate among the best of Tier 2. The setback is that local based players are after a winter break and their fitness might not be the best despite the fact that local Super Liga is one of the very few fully professional championships in Europe outside 6 Nations.
Romania is expected to mainly target the matches counting for RWC qualification because the Oaks are part of the group of teams which never missed one but if they will be able to keep their players based in France and resist the pressure of foreign clubs until the end of the championship, they might be able to challenge Georgia away.
PROPS:Andrei Ursache (Carcassonne), Ionel Badiu (Timisoara Saracens), Mihaita Lazar (Castres), Constantin Pristavita (Stiinta Baia Mare), Alexandru Tarus (Sale Sharks)
HOOKERS: Andrei Radoi (Timisoara Saracens), Florin Bardasu (Baia Mare), Marian Capatana (Timisoara Saracens)
LOCKS: Johannes Van Heerden (Stiinta Baia Mare), Marius Antonescu (Colomiers), Valentin Poparlan (Timisoara Saracens), Alin Coste (Carcasonne)
BACKROW: Vlad Nistor (Albi), Mihai Macovei (Colomiers), Stelian Burcea (CSM Bucuresti), Valentin Ursache (Oyonnax), Andrei Gorcioaia (Massy)
SCRUM-HALVES: Florin Surugiu (CSA Steaua ), Tudorel Bratu (CS Dinamo), Valentin Calafeteanu (CSM Bucuresti)
FLY-HALVES: Florin Vlaicu (CSA Steaua), Tudor Boldor (CSA Steaua)
CENTERS: Jack Umaga (Timisoara Saracens), Paula Kinikinilau (CSM Bucuresti), Sione Fakaosilea (Stiinta Baia Mare)
WINGS: Ionut Dumitru (CSA Steaua), Tangimana Fonovai (Timisoara Saracens), Stephen Shannan (Timisoara Saracens)
FULLBACK: Catalin Fercu (Timisoara Saracens), Marius Simionescu (Timisoara Saracens)
STAFF: Lynn Howells – Head Coach, Massimo Cuttitta – Forwards coach, Rob Moffat – Backs coach, Olivier Rieg – Conditioning
After the last RWC Georgia continued to use their best squad with little interest to introduce young players into the mix. They won Tests versus Fiji, Tonga and Samoa and kept Wales close last November. However, in last year’s REC Milton Haig timidly started to use younger boots with mixed success. Koshadze ended as top try scorer of the competition and Matiashvili made a fine debut last Autumn versus Canada. There are still positions where he needs to find solutions to replace veterans such as Kacharava or Khmaladze as young fly-half Jintchelashvili wasn’t too convincing.
Their pack is the strongest in REC and probably the only issues are in the second row where Lelos lack depth but not value. The backs are an entirely different story and we can expect the coaching staff to rotate and mix young players with the experienced ones to give game time to the upcoming talent. The aim is obviously to win the trophy as it seems many of the players took the defeat against Romania personally in last year’s finale which ended a 6 year winning streak.
Since Georgia is qualified directly their main scope should be improving their game plan and team cohesion and it will be very interesting to see how the young players will fit into the team.
PROPS: Karlen Asieshvili (Brive), Levan Chilachava (Toulon), Tornike Mataradze (Lyon), Mikheil Nariashvili (Montpellier), Anton Peikrishvili (Cardiff Blues), Lasha Tabidze (Union Bordeaux-Bègles), Zurab Zhvania (Stade Français)
HOOKERS: Badri Alkhazashvili (Toulon), Giorgi Chkoidze (Jiki Gori), Shalva Mamukashvili (Lokomotiv Tbilisi)
LOCKS: Nodar Cheishvili (Chambery), Konstantin Mikautadze (Montpellier), Giorgi Nemsadze (Bristol)
BACKROW: Mikheil Gachechiladze (Enisei-STM), Otar Giorgadze (Clermont), Viktor Kolelishvili (Clermont), Lasha Lomidze (London Irish), Guram Shengelia (Jiki Gori), Giorgi Tkhilaishvili (Batumi), Giorgi Tsutskiridze (Aurillac)
SCRUM-HALVES: Gela Aprasidze (Montpellier), Giorgi Begadze (Locomotive Tbilisi), Vasil Lobzhanidze (Brive)
FLY-HALVES: Revaz Jinchvelashvili (Armazi Marneuli), Lasha Khmaladze (Batumi), Lasha Malaguradze (Krasny Yar)
CENTERS: Davit Kacharava (Enisey-STM), Giorgi Koshadze (Kharebi Rustavi), Giorgi Kveseladze (Armazi Marneuli), Merab Sharikadze (Aurillac)
WINGERS: Giorgi Pruidze (Krasny Yar, Russia), Anzor Sichinava (Academia Tbilisi), Sandro Todua (Lelo Saracens)
FULLBACKS: Merab Kvirikashvili (Lelo Saracens), Soso Matiashvili (Krasny Yar), Beka Tsiklauri (Locomotive Tbilisi)
STAFF: Milton Haig – Head Coach, Levan Maisashvili – Assistant Coach, Brad Harris – Forwards Coach, Richard Graham – Backs coach, Kevin Morgan – Strength Coach
Like many Tier 2 squads, Spain used to rely heavily on its Sevens team. This was fine until recently, but meeting a decent pack revealed the shortcoming of such and approach. In recent years the policy shifted in the direction of building a more balanced game plan and from 2016 onward the Spaniards showed a different approach and better structure. It is hard to say if this is due to the supervision of World Rugby and Spanish Sports Council following their help to avoid bankruptcy or the usual brawls of club versus club or clubs versus country stopped as there is a common goal of RWC qualification.
The game plan changed and is more forward based than it used to be, with more attention to set pieces and avoiding hectic passing and running that Sevens backs used. They still like to move the ball around the park. They do benefit from a sizeable reservoir of Frenchmen of Spanish descent playing club rugby in France and the local semi pro Heineken Liga has provided some talent good enough to fill holes in the squad. Their issues with this selection is that until recently, the presence of Spanish players from France was erratic and rather based on club interests. However, it seems that there is much better focus this year in chasin RWC qualification and there are no serious absences in Leones squad.
Their first match versus Russia in Krasnodar is crucial as both teams have a great chance to make it via the Europe 2 position. Spain is grounding its ambitions on continuity, a team well gelled together which regularly features the same group of players and a continuous season of rugby who doesn’t have a break as in Eastern Europe. Qualifying to the play offs in Europe 2 is within reach.
FRONT ROW: Beñat Auzqui (Grenoble), Marco Pinto (Béziers), Jonathan García (Nevers), Jesús Moreno (Provence), Juan Anaya (Sanitas Alcobendas), Fernando López (AMPO Ordizia)
LOCKS / BACK ROW: Gautier Gibouin (Nevers), Lucas Guillaume (Narbonne), Pierre Barthere (Rouen), Aníbal Bonan (Bagnères)David Barrera (Bourg-en-Bresse), Thibaut Visensang (Tyrosse) Víctor Sánchez (SilverStorm El Salvador), Matt Foulds (SilverStorm El Salvador), Kalo Kalo Gavidi (VRAC Quesos Entrepinares), Jaime Nava (Sanitas Alcobendas)
SCRUM-HALVES: Guillaume Rouet (Bayonne), Sébastien Rouet (Narbonne)
FLY-HALVES / CENTERS: Mathieu Bélie (Nevers), Christopher Ruiz (USAP), Dan Snee (Havelock North), Fabien Perrin (Bourg-en-Bresse), Alvar Gimeno (VRAC Quesos Entrepinares)
BACK THREE: Charlie Malié (Pau), Sébastien Ascarat (Montauban), Ignacio Contardi (Niort), Brad Linklater (Sanitas Alcobendas), Javier Carrión (La Vila), Federico Casteglioni (VRAC Quesos Entrepinares), Julen Goia (AMPO Ordizia, Liga Heineken)
STAFF: Santiago Santos – Head Coach
This is another Union that relied on its Sevens team to feed its Test team. However, as in the case of other T2 teams, this didn’t bring success to Test a side. One misconception of Tier 1 public is that being an Eastern European team, Russia must have a strong forward game which isn’t the case at all. The Russian pack can probably match Germany and Spain but will have difficult time against the likes of Romania and Georgia. Russia’s strength lies in the backs, especially in the back three and they have a dynamic running game which unfortunately is limited by the skill sets of their forwards and tactical kicking.
Even if national the squad lacked decent results in last two years, Russian club rugby seems to have a bright future as both teams signed up for the Continental Shield managed to make it into the Challenge Cup and won some games versus French or British clubs in last two years with credible performances, albeit with little consistency.
Enisey STM and Krasny Yar were both involved in Challenge Cup groups. As they provide the bulk of the squad, Russia won’t be affected by the local championship break due to winter. Sensing the prospects of a qualification, Russian Rugby Union arranged to start the preparation of the team earlier than usual with one week staged in France finishing with a training match against the French Army followed by a physical preparation stage in Turkey.
Since they’re in 3rd place in the qualification standings, the match home versus Spain is the decisive one and will be highly unlikely to be anywhere near a qualification spot if they are not able to win this one.
PROPS: Innokenty Zykov (Enisey-STM), Valery Morozov (Enisei-STM), Andrei Polivalov (Enisey-STM), Magomed Davudov (Kuban), Vladimir Podrezov (VVA), Sergei Sekisov (VVA)
HOOKERS: Stanislav Sel’skiy (Enisey-STM), Valery Tsnobiladze (Krasny Yar), Nazir Gasanov (Kuban)
LOCKS: Evgeny Elgin (Enisey-STM), Andrey Garbuzov (Krasny Yar), Bogdan Fedotko (Krasny Yar), Andrey Ostrikov (Sale Sharks)
BACKROW: Pavel Butenko (Enisey-STM), Dmitry Krotov (Enisei-STM), Anton Rudoy (Enisey-STM), Andrei Temnov (Enisey-STM), Tagir Ghadgiev (Kuban)
SCRUM-HALVES: Konstantin Uzunov (Enisey-STM), Alexey Scherban (Enisei-STM), Vasily Dorofeev (Krasny Yar)
FLY-HALVES: Yuri Kushnarev (Enisey-STM), Aleksandr Budychenko (Enisey-STM)
CENTERS: Dimitri Gerasimov (Enisey-STM), Igor Galinovskiy (Krasny Yar), Viktor Gresev (Krasny Yar), German Davidov (VVA), Sergei Trishin (VVA)
WINGERS: Denis Simplikevich (Enisey-STM), Evgeny Nepeivoda (Kuban), Mikhail Babayev (VVA), Vladislav Sozonov (VVA)
FULLBACKS: Ramil Gaisin (Enisey-STM), Vasily Artemyev (Krasny Yar)
STAFF: Alexander Pervukhin – Head Coach
After a brilliant 2017, perhaps the best in recent German rugby history which saw wins versus Romania and Kenya, Der Adlers seems to have a lot of inner problems due to the strike of Heidelberger RK just before last Autumn test versus United States. This originated mainly in the ambition of Wild (Heidelberger RK owner) to show that the show cannot be run without his support. While it is true that partly the resurgence of German rugby at T2 level is based on his investments in Wild Rugby Academy and professionalization of some of his clubs’ players, his demands are unreasonable and unrealistic and DRV did not did not give up to the blackmail and responded by appointing a respectable coaching team led by Pablo Lemoine who lead Uruguay to 2015 RWC seconded by Paul Healy, ex-Chile, CSM Bucharest (Romanian Super Liga) and Stade Francais. The forwards will be coached by ex – All Black Campbell Johnstone and Englishman Chris Lane is skills coach.
Petty politics aside and back to rugby we note that although Germany have a respectable 7s squad, the recent progress was especially in the forwards department where the quality was lacking until a few years ago. Their surprising win against Romania sparked more interest as the spectre of a RWC qualification was suddenly such and impossible thought and this situation attracted the interest of various players with German descent from T1 countries such as South Africa or France, which has increased the depth of the squad.
2018 REC selected team seems to be an extended squad and nobody knows if Wild Academy / Heidelberger RK players who form the backbone of the team will actually show up and if players playing abroad will support this boycott as some of them are quite keen on the German shirt. However, even if HRK players will be missing, their squad is still respectable but would probably lack cohesion upfront, Therefore little can be said about the strength of the team that will debut against Romania in Cluj-Napoca this Saturday.
Matches schedule and standings can be found here:
Information about the qualification process for the 2019 Rugby World Cup from Europe:
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