This past weekend saw the kick-off of yet another hotly contested European Nations Cup 1A Championship. A Championship that, in terms of competition among participants, could be argued is the world’s toughest.
Sure, it’s not the level of the Rugby Championship or the Six Nations, but when observing the pride and passion displayed over the weekend and most importantly the gallantly fought rugby between all competitors, there’s no questioning how tight the next best championship in Europe has become.
To be honest, it is of no real surprise. Both Spain and Portugal have been trending upward for a few seasons now. Meanwhile, Russia has not been the same team that qualified for New Zealand 2011 and Romania have been witnessing a resurgence of kind, with their relatively fresh professional SuperLiga beginning to pay dividiends.
Even the perennial powerhouses at this level, Georgia, have begun to notice stiffer resistance of late.
The improvement alluded to above indicated that among the five established members of this six team championship, the games would be hard fought and hopefully tightly contested. They were.
In the first weekend of play, Russia hosted Spain and Portugal welcomed Romania.
Details and coverage of both games is sparse to say the least, however Russia emerged victorious over their Spanish foes by the small margin of 13-9, while Portugal just lacked the finishing stamina to fall at home to Romania 13-19.
From what can be gathered, both were physical if not scrappy first up games for all involved.
The one question mark leading into this season was the level of competitiveness newly promoted Belgium would present. The rising power of continental European rugby, the Belgian Union has been squirreling away over the past decade, developing and installing structure to dominate the continental rivals at the age grade level and drive their way into the ENC1A Championship.
History suggested, via the likes of Germany and the Ukraine, promotion from 1B to 1A is often a step too far. So the question was not how close Belgium’s game would be against the powerful Georgians but if they could at least keep it respectable.
The answer? Not only did they keep it respectable, they gave the Georgians an almighty scare.
In front of a capacity home crowd (6,000) in Brussels, the Belgians put the Georgians to the sword early on, leading at one stage 13-3 before the Georgians were able to use their superior experience and forward grunt to assume the lead and the victory 13-17.
While it was a loss for Belgium, they have fired a warning shot across the bows of the competition that they will not be a guaranteed four points and to beat them, teams will need to respect them as they do each other.
Overall, this is shaping as potentially the best ENC1A yet. A championship that has potential to develop into something equivalent to the Six Nations with the right support and coverage.
Now with the likes of Germany rebuilding and showing strong signs of recovery (they pushed Belgium to the limit last year) and surprise packets Poland improving rapidly, European rugby is gaining some serious legs that, if fostered, could deliver a really competitive region well beyond its current levels.