Howells and Moffat vote to leave, not remain ‘ere … [ouch, sorry]

Romania’s national rugby team’s coaches resign after a 50-point win, and why the Oaks are in serious danger of failing to qualify for Japan 2019.

The head coach of Romania’s national rugby team, Welshman Lynn Howells, and his coaching team – including Gregor Townsend’s old PE teacher Rob Moffat – resigned yesterday after the Oaks’ victory over Belgium. No further details are available as yet, but it leaves the national set-up in a bit of a mess.

UPDATE 17 Feb: Howells has clarified that his resignation after six years at the helm was the result of failing to secure direct qualification to the 2019 World Cup. He and his team are staying to take charge until after the Georgia match, which takes place in Tbilisi today.

lynn and rob
Lynn and Rob

The 62-12 victory in Buzău was both essential and pointless in Romania’s quest to qualify for the 2019 World Cup. Essential because, in order to take the automatic qualification spot as Europe 1, they needed a bonus point to have any hope of catching Spain. Pointless because Spain will not fail to beat the weakest teams in the Rugby Europe Championship*, and because Romania were already assured of finishing above Russia and thus securing a place in the play-offs for Japan next year. The damage has already been done. Last February’s catastrophic, ludicrous and completely avoidable 41-38 defeat to Germany in Offenbach could yet prove to be the Oaks’ undoing.

In Bucharest, a few weeks after the Offenbach Disaster, Romania ground out an unexpected and morale-boosting 8-7 win over their closest rivals Georgia, securing the Rugby Europe Championship title and breaking the Lelos’ five-year unbeaten run in the competition. (I excitably previewed that game here.) In last autumn’s home fixtures, they beat Samoa and ran Tonga close.

The Romanians then found it easy to exact revenge on Germany in Cluj last month, with the visitors’ ranks severely depleted by internal political strife between the German rugby union and Hans-Peter Wild, the businessman who largely funds the game in the country. In a totally uneven contest, the hosts ran in 13 tries and the scoreline came very close to the Germans’ heaviest defeat in their 90-year history. It finished 85-6 and Lynn Howells’ boys seemed back on track.

And yet. 

On 18 February 2018, one year to the day since they overcame tough Spanish resistance in Bucharest to win 13-3 in a match I wrote about here, the Romanians lined up in Madrid in front of 15,000 people. It was a much bigger crowd than they are used to. But Romania had a 33-2 historical head-to-head advantage. And Spain only went and beat them. Los Leones, who had won somewhat streakily in Russia the previous week, were now in the driving seat and Romanian fans have had to study the rules for the RWC19 qualification competition. Let me tell you, this is one insanely complicated system, in which only four World Cup places are still up for grabs but the world’s 85th-best team is still in contention.

The team that finishes top (or second, if Georgia finish top) of the 2017-18 Rugby Europe Championship goes into Pool A at the World Cup, and has the valuable exposure of contesting the opening game of the tournament against Japan. After the win over Georgia I was guilty of assuming that Romania would be that team. Note that the championship is decided annually, but for World Cup purposes a two-year cycle is taken into account. Along with many other not-so-casual observers, I was not aware that results against Georgia, who qualified for the next World Cup by winning two games at the last one, do not count towards World Cup qualification. Here are the tables for the simultaneous competitions, courtesy of Wikipedia:

REC 2017 table
Above: Rugby Europe Championship 2017 final table.
REC 2018 table
Above: Rugby Europe Championship 2018 table to date.
RWC19 quals
Above: World Cup 2019 qualification table to date, for Europe region. Spain’s game in hand is against Belgium.

The team that finishes second in the qualification standings, then, tumbles into a baffling play-off vortex: firstly a one-off game against – for some reason – the team that finished top of the division below, which is Portugal. The winner of that clash will then go on to a two-legged tie in June against Samoa, with another Pool A place at stake. Samoa had a bad Pacific Nations Cup (losing both games of it) last summer, but with a full-strength team would surely be too much for Romania in this play-off.

However, the safety net system even allows for the loser of that encounter to have another bite of the cherry, in the form of a four-team repechage tournament somewhere, some time in November. The three opponents in the repechage will be … [checks Wikipedia] …

  1. The winner of a two-legged play-off between (a) the winner of this summer’s Asian double-round-robin tournament between Hong Kong, Malaysia and South Korea, and (b) Tahiti, the aforementioned 85th best national team on the planet right now;
  2. The runner-up of the six-team league which is confusingly known as the Africa Gold Cup – this team is likely to be Kenya, Uganda or Zimbabwe;
  3. Canada.

So there is still all to play for, and the Oaks do have a pretty good chance of getting to Japan. But the effect for Romanian rugby of this fall from grace remains to be seen. They had scheduled an away match with Fiji in June, which will presumably be ditched if they make it past Portugal. Similarly, if they lose to Samoa, the November international window could well be entirely taken up by, instead of attractive, pack-’em-in home fixtures against the likes of USA, encounters on the other side of the world with Uganda or South Korea. This is the reality now facing Romania, assuming** that next week Spain beat a weak Belgium and Romania don’t pile on the tries in a swashbuckling demolition of Georgia in Tbilisi.

The RWC 2019 qualification schema. In Italian. A test for your flag identification skills.

We’re not the only ones to be befuddled by the complexities of the system. The head coach of Samoa confirmed to a local news outlet recently that his boys would be facing Spain in the June play-off. Just a year ago, the authorities themselves got themselves into an embarrassing tizz, awarding Georgia the REC 2017 trophy on the pitch in Bucharest, forgetting that a tie-break rule change meant that in fact Romania were the champions.

For what it’s worth, Tonga played a total of four qualifying matches for RWC 2019, of which they won just one. Samoa have also only won one of their qualifiers so far but are still favourites to make it through. Tahiti will end up playing three: in fact, as far as I can make out, they’ve only played one international match in the past year. Romania, meanwhile, have already played seven games which count towards qualification and could by my reckoning end up playing fourteen. Something is clearly not quite right in the unevenly-competitive world of international rugby union. But we knew that. What we don’t know is whether Lynn and his men were pushed, whether the federation has any kind of plan, or where Romanian rugby goes from here. In the meantime, there’s the small matter of a trip to Fortress Tbilisi next Sunday…


 *As I write this they have just put 80 points on the Germans.

**Have I learned NOTHING?!

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