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It took until the last round of the European Championship to confirm who would go directly to the Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan as Europe’s entry.
It was an absorbing series. The 2017 and 2018 European Rugby Championship doubled as the European Cup and the Rugby World Cup 2019 European qualifier. All six nations – Belgium, Georgia, Germany, Romania, Russia and Spain – took part in the Cup. However, for the World Cup qualifiers, all games involving Georgia were not considered as Georgia had direct entry to the finals.
There were changing fortunes right from the opening game in 2019 when the favourites, Romania, were beaten by Germany and that loss opened the door to Germany, Russia and Spain. Romania later caused an upset when they beat Georgia but that result was not included in the qualification process.
Romania also beat their main rivals, Spain, to lead the table at the end of the 2017 season. The table had Romania on 15, Spain 13, Russia nine, Germany eight and Belgium on two points. At this point, only Belgium were out of the reckoning.
Germany were then eliminated as a threat when there was an upheaval in the German Rugby Verbund (DRV). Despite doing well in 2017 and showing big improvements in their playing standards, German rugby changed administration and reverted to amateur philosophies, not selecting Germans playing in France and not paying well so good players couldn’t afford to take time off work, causing strikes by players and staff. As a result, Germany did not win a game in 2018, losing 85-6 to Romania, and could be relegated to B division for 2019.
The next crunch game was the Russia-Spain match played in Russia. Both sides were even before Spain pulled away to a 20-13 lead. With a minute to play, a Russian player dived around a ruck but the Spanish Leones (Lions) pushed him back.
No-one on the field saw him ground the ball next to the posts until the television commentators advised that the ball had been grounded. It was too late, as the Russian Rugby Union had not appointed a TMO for the match (too expensive, they said) so 20-13 was the final score and the hosts were out of the running. A 20-all draw would have kept Russia in the race.
That only left Romania and Spain vying for the top spot so the clash in Madrid was important to both sides. A crowd of 15,800 packed the Madrid University ground (despite its official capacity of just 12,000), with Spain needing to win to stay in contention. A 22-10 victory to the hosts not only had them level with Romania but put them in the lead in the head-to-head points and denied Romania a much-needed bonus point.
In the next round, Romania needed a bonus point against Russia to stay ahead of Spain. After the Spanish fiasco, Russia sacked its coach, Aleksandr Pervukhin, and appointed Irishman Mark McDermott. Romania won 25-15, scoring four tries to two, but it wasn’t good enough for the bonus point, as a difference of three tries is required. To qualify, Romania could only hope that Spain was beaten by both Belgium and Germany.
On the same day as the Romania-Russia game, Spain travelled to Tbilisi to face Georgia. A 30,000-strong crowd packed the ground and although Spain showed how much they had improved, were no match for the Lelos, who won 23-10. This match had no bearing on Rugby World Cup qualification but did matter for the European Cup.
Spain’s last home game was against Germany and to show how much rugby’s profile has increased there, the King of Spain attended along with 15,750 spectators. The king mixed with players and fans on the field after the match. It was a 12-try-to-one rout as Spain defeated the German ‘amateurs’ 84-10. In the same round, Romania thrashed Belgium, 62-12, which included three penalty tries conceded by Belgium.
So it came down to the final round. The Germany-Russia and Georgia-Romania games had no bearing on Rugby World Cup qualification. For the record, Russia beat Germany 57-3 in Cologne and Georgia beat Romania 25-16 in front of a 38,000-strong crowd in Tbilisi.
But it was the Belgium-Spain game that was important. If Spain won or drew then they were through to the Rugby World Cup. If they, lost, then Romania would qualify directly.
It seemed straightforward. In two years, Belgium had won only one game, against Germany, and had lost their others by quite large margins.
The referee and both assistant referees were from Romania. Spain asked for them to be replaced by referees from another country, fearing they would not be neutral, but the request was disallowed by Rugby Europe.
So a farce ensued. The penalty count was 28-8 in favour of the Belgians – that’s right, one every three minutes – and Belgium led 12-0 (with four penalty goals) at halftime. A Spanish player was later given a yellow card and Belgium kicked another goal.
At the 70-minute mark, Spain scored the only try of the match and four minutes later they kicked a penalty goal. At 15-10, the scores were close but another penalty allowed Belgium to take an 18-10 lead, which would stand until full-time.
At full-time, the Spanish players chased the referees from the field and may face sanctions because of this. World Rugby, meanwhile, have comfirmed they are investigating the match.
Romania will be in pool A with Ireland, Scotland and Japan and will contest the Rugby World Cup opener against Japan. Spain will now have to play their Iberian neighbours, Portugal, with the winner playing a home-and-away series against Samoa for the right to enter the Rugby World Cup finals.