Saturday 18th February 2017.
Stadion Emil Alexandrescu, Iași Stadion Arcul de Triumf, Bucharest. 1.00pm. Ticket price: free.
Aahh, Iași. (Pronounced “yash”.) Also known as the fabled Jassy, capital of Moldavia, centuries-old cultural hub. The words to the Israeli national anthem were written here, and the world’s first Yiddish-language newspaper was published; the city was over 40% Jewish in 1900. Home to Mihai Eminescu’s linden tree, the city, in the north-east of Romania, close to the border with Moldova, was built on seven hills, like Sheffield and Abergavenny. To understand Romania, one must visit Iași. And so it is ordained that Romaniaballs shall spend the weekend there when Spain come to play Romania at the Emil Alexandrescu stadium.Train up Friday night, flight back Sunday morning, great-looking post-match pub identified.
However, the weather has worked its magic: one look at the frozen pitch on Monday, and another at the forecast, was enough for the federation to move the game to my local ground, the national rugby stadium, on the edge of Herăstrău Park in Bucharest. So here we are again – I don’t want to miss a match at my favourite sporting venue. A weekend in Iași can wait.
The two teams are contesting the second fixture of the newly rebranded Rugby Europe Championship, and they are very familiar foes: Romania (ranked 16th) have played Spain (ranked 21st) eighteen times since the competition assumed its modern form in 2000. But to illustrate the lack of competitiveness in this tournament in recent years, Spain have only won one match on Romanian soil in their entire history – and that was against Namibia. In total, Romania have won 32 of the 34 encounters between the two sides, having lost in Madrid in 1992 and 2012. That one-point defeat five years ago marks the only time that the Lions have ever finished above the Oaks in the championship table: they also managed to beat Georgia that year but did not top the standings because of defeats away in Portugal and Russia.
So Spain are Romania’s bunnies. But then so were Germany until two weeks ago. After a successful 2016, in which they bullied the USA and Uruguay (twice), beat Canada, Spain, Portugal, Namibia and Russia, put sixty points on Germany (in Iași) and lost only away in Georgia, it looked like the Oaks were developing their game under Welsh coach Lynn Howells and were on the rise. Then Offenbach happened… [flashback sequence]…
A 24-6 lead after 30 minutes, thanks to two quick tries, should have been easily defensible by Romania. But soon afterwards the Germans were awarded a penalty try, after the Romanian winger was judged to have deliberately thrown the ball out of play from his in-goal area. An interception try under the posts swiftly followed, and a superb last-ditch tackle in the corner when the yellow tide was surging towards the line ensured that at half time there were only four points between the two teams.
Even two tries early in the second half, combined with the faultless goalkicking of Florin Vlaicu, could not quell the home resistance, and once again an 18-point deficit was hacked down, by German perseverance, hard running, the odd superb offload and some Romanian errors. Two catch-and-drives over the line reduced the deficit, and with ten minutes left Germany were again within four points, and being roared on by a suddenly emboldened home crowd. Romania were being matched in their traditional area of strength, up front, and momentum was now against them.
Germany’s fly half, the South African Raynor Parkinson, kicked well in both defence and attack, outshining his opposite number and compatriot Jody Rose, who was yellow-carded in the first half. A neat running move provided the winning try, and once more Parkinson added the conversion from the touchline, in off the post. For the remaining five minutes the Romanians pummelled but the German defence held solid, hindered by cramp but helped by sloppiness in handling by the men in yellow. With one minute to go the Romanian pack drove for the try, but knocked on over the line. Germany secured a famous victory, 41-38, over the titans from down the Danube.
But back to the here and now. It is a chilly day in Romania’s capital Bucharest – but warmer than it has been for months, and sunny. (Above zero? What is this?) The beautiful Herăstrău Park is still covered in the snow that started to fall in early January, but the lake is thawing and the trees are more full of life than they have been since the cold set in long before Christmas. Gulls, crows and dog-walkers still dominate the scene, but herons, nuthatches and black squirrels are all out and about, while woodpeckers hammer away at bark above.
The stadium is slow to fill up, which is good, since there is only one beer-and-mici stand – presumably because of the short notice. With at least one row of seats out of action underneath the snow removed from the pitch earlier in the week, the east stand gets virtually full and prepares its customary warming atmosphere. Los Leones appear to have approximately four supporters, all of whom are in the covered stand opposite. I hear French, British, Italian and antipodean voices in among the knowledgeable and good-natured crowd of locals ready for kick-off.
And then a rugby match takes place, in which very little excitement occurs. Romanian forward power dominates, led by Castres loosehead Mihai Lazăr (from Iași) and his marauding fellow prop Paulică Ion, but it does not bear as much fruit as they would have hoped. Romanian backs suffer from mishandling, as so often. the injection of an overseas taskforce into this part of the team – three Kiwis started today – which seemed to be bearing fruit in the autumn tests, looks slightly less a roaring success in 2017 so far.
The Oaks’ kickbot Florin Vlaicu flexes his oak trunk of a right leg and winces. Injured in the Germany game, he hasn’t trained and his knee is clearly not quite right. But Vlaicu has just converted what will be the only try of the game, which he scored himself from the back of a rolling maul. He will end up with all 13 of his team’s points today, the eighth time that has happened in his 97 appearances. He is currently the highest scoring player from any Tier 2 nation of all time, with almost 800 international points to his name, and these days usually plays at inside centre, which surely means that you can pick a Finn Russell-esque ball-playing fly half whose boot doesn’t need to be a traction engine? Luke Samoa may fit the second criterion at least, as he shows with a puny effort at goal early on, prompting Vlaicu to take over place-kicking duties in spite of his discomfort. The presence of three project players aged over 30, two New Zealanders (Samoa and Michael Wiringi) and one South African (Rose), battling for the no. 10 shirt says much about the difficulty in bringing through a local lad to take that position. Samoa today became the eighth different player to start a game as Romania fly-half in the last three years.
The second half, which yielded just one penalty goal for Vlaicu, was so boring that I wandered around the stadium taking photographs. I stood with the cleaners and police and watched from the corner for a while. We saw a Spanish interception lead to defensive havoc and a joyous try, which was then ruled out for a knock-on. Play returned to its scrum-based norm in the centre of the field and I went once more to browse listlessly the dwindling stock of official merchandise.We may not have had the kind of rugby that did for Uruguay and Canada last year, but a 13-3 win is a win none the less, especially for a team chastened by horrific defeat in Germany a fortnight ago. Next up for Romania are two away games: Sochi and Brussels on consecutive March Saturdays, to face Russia and Belgium respectively, before the traditional showdown with Georgia back here at Arcul de Triumf. The Oaks’ form is not great, and the omens are bleak for that last game: in their last seven meetings with Georgia, Romania have lost six and drawn one, scoring just two tries in the process, and the Lelos’ status as top dogs (they haven’t lost a game in this competition for five years) is unlikely to be challenged unless the top Georgian players are kept at their French clubs instead of making the trip to Bucharest – and even then…