“Today rugby lost.”

“I don’t want to think that rugby has prostituted itself in order to leave us out. When they assigned us the Romanian referees, it shocked us, but this is rugby, some values are assumed.” (Spain captain Jaime Nava)

The 2018 Rugby Europe Championship came to a controversial, even farcical end this weekend. If you care for the dignity of rugby union or for its development prospects in Tier 2 nations, look away now.

See here for the background to the situation (my blog entry from last week)

Coach Santi Santos and captain Jaime Nava holding forth. [Source: antena3.com]
For almost a month, ever since Spain unexpectedly beat Romania in Madrid, and especially over the past week after their routine demolition of a desperately weak German side, all the media hype at home and abroad had been about los Leones. Never mind Crunciul, the clash of the traditional giants Georgia and Romania in front of 38,000 spectators in Tbilisi, the real importance of the final round of fixtures lay in the outcome of the much less well-attended Belgium v Spain in Brussels. Although the Romanians were sitting top of the World Cup qualification standings on Sunday morning, their coaching staff had already resigned before they set off for the Caucasus, taking full responsibility (in public, at least) for the nation’s failure to secure direct qualification for Japan 2019. This fatalism was brought on because Spain just needed a win over the Belgians, whom they normally beat and who had lost 62-12 in Romania last Saturday. Anything less than a victory would send Romania to Japan in their place, but this was seen as extremely unlikely.

The matches in Brussels and Tbilisi kicked off at the same time, as if to acknowledge the possibility that knowing the outcome of one could affect play in the other. Except it couldn’t: the result of the Antim Cup match was inconsequential in World Cup terms, because games against Georgia don’t count for that, and Spain had no chance of winning the REC title, which only the Oaks could deny the Lelos. But one other precaution against possible unfairness was, oddly, not taken: the referee for the Belgium v Spain game was the Romanian Vlad Iordăchescu. This seems a bizarre decision, and a difficult situation for the referee.

The appointment of the referees was made at the beginning of the tournament, but it was revealed this week that, the day after Spain’s win over Romania, when it became clear that los Leones could secure qualification in the last match, the Spanish rugby federation requested that the officials be changed for this match. The request was turned down by Rugby Europe. Rugby Europe’s president is the Romanian, Octavian Moraru. (I present those two sentences separately, with no suggestion that they are connected.) After some early decisions against them, and having been put under a lot of pressure by the hosts, the Spaniards quickly lost their cool, while the Belgians – at full strength this week – rucked well and played the referee impeccably. The penalty count was heavily in the home side’s favour. Spanish spot-kicker Brad Linklater missed some good chances and it was not until the 60th minute that los Leones even scored a point, by which time they had also endured the sin-binning of prop Beñat Auzqui.

At the end of the game, which Belgium won 18-10, some of the Spanish players went chasing after the referee and appeared to be on the verge of physically assaulting him. (Note to football fans: this does not happen in rugby.) The players and coach went public with criticism of the officials, captain Jaime Nava saying the referee didn’t let his team play. Amid shock and outrage on social media – both at the officials’ performance and the players’ conduct – footage of the game was mysteriously unavailable on the Rugby Europe website, where all REC matches are streamed in full. This only fed the conspiracy theories about the Romanian rugby mafia and their desire for the Stejarii to be at the World Cup whatever the cost. Rumours flew around that the penalty count had been 24 to Belgium and 4 to Spain, a virtually unheard-of imbalance whose mere numbers appeared to convince people who had not seen the game that the referee must be a crook. Highlights videos appeared on YouTube, put together by Spaniards and isolating supposedly incorrect penalty decisions. Rugby Europe felt the pressure enough to put out a statement explaining that no RE board members are involved in the panel who select referees for REC matches, and that a full investigation into the game would be undertaken. The video became available on the site a day later.

Outraged Spanish players confronting the referee. [Source: elmundo.es]
The Rugby Europe Selection Committee will devote their meeting in Poznan on Friday to examining the game in detail; their report will go to the bosses of RE. The Spanish federation have also asked World Rugby to look into the game. Rugby Romania, meanwhile, have taken the opportunity to lament the standard of behaviour demonstrated by the Spanish players at the end of the game. Classy.

It is unclear what would be the ramifications if, somehow, those investigating were to find evidence of wrongdoing or deliberately wonky officiating. Could the match be replayed? (When?!) The result reversed? (Unfair to the Belgians.) How about a one-off playoff between Spain and Romania? These all sound like the kind of thing the governing body of the Romanian football league would consider and should therefore be immediately disregarded.

The catastrophe leaves Spanish rugby in disarray, after such high hopes earlier in the week of a first World Cup appearance since 1999. The king’s attendance at the match against Germany the week before even made it onto the front page of Marca, the football-obsessed Madrid sports daily in which rugby usually snuggles up to the likes of sailing or gymnastics. Now public attention, such as there is, is split between outrage: at what many see as the blatant corruption of the organising body (or, implicitly, the inherent crookedness of Romanians), and at the behaviour of their representatives in what was supposed to be (in contrast to football) a gentlemanly sport. The whole affair casts Rugby Europe, Romania as a country, and Tier 2 rugby all in a bad light. For mid-level rugby nations like Spain, without a professional league and struggling for cash, the prospect of missing out on the World Cup windfall, estimated at half a million euros, as well as the much-needed exposure.

el rey leon.jpg
Marca front page 12 March 2018. [Source: portadas.es]
For what it’s worth – and pending that investigation – I don’t think this is a case of biased refereeing or a conspiracy to deprive Spain of their right to qualification. But it certainly is bad decision-making, followed up with stubbornness, from officialdom. And a flawed refereeing display. Spain can still qualify of course, but it is interesting to note the lack of confidence with which Spain will face their long road to the repechage. They will have to get past old enemies Portugal in order to face Samoa home and away. Nobody gives them a hope in hell of beating the islanders, unlike Romania, who were considered to have a chance, at least in the home leg. In November’s repechage tournament Spain will face Canada, a team in crisis whom Romania would be expected to beat but with whom Spain have trouble.

The REC has been a rubbish competition this year, with weakened teams being sent to face stronger opposition by both Belgium (in Romania) and Spain (in Georgia). Russia appear to be going backwards, and Germany has a full team essentially on strike. Romania’s progress, despite a rare win over Georgia last year, has been negligible, and even Georgia can’t do much – other than blood youngsters with an eye on increased Tier 1 games – in this kind of competition. Nor has this weekend been the first refereeing controversy of the tournament. In the French-dominated Spain side’s win over Romania, the referee was a French Basque; these things do not normally cause issues. More significantly, in the 80th minute of Russia’s match with Spain in Krasnodar, the Irish referee failed to spot a try by the posts by the home side that would have levelled the scores. The TV footage shows a very clear grounding; had there been a TMO the try would have been awarded and Spain would almost certainly not have been in a position to overhaul Romania in the standings.

As for what happens now with the Romanian team (who lost 25-16 in Tbilisi, by the way), Howells will not retract his resignation in light of the new facts. The boss of Romanian rugby, Alin Petrache, confirms that the federation continues to look for a replacement. He also took the time to be dismissive of the Spanish, describing the match as “the Spanish Frenchmen against the Belgian Frenchmen”, noting that there are some Portuguese Frenchmen to come in the play-off. This is a reference to the lack of Spanish-born players in those squads. Which brings us on to a strange and slightly paradoxical aspect to the whole affair. Notwithstanding the preponderance of naturalised players in its senior squad, Spain has a good sevens set-up and good youth teams in XVs: this is partly why the media and the rugby establishment were excited last week about a new and growing market. Romania, in contrast, struggles with strength-in-depth, with grassroots development and with public interest, and the backlines of the national team and the major clubs are stuffed with overseas players. The Spanish seem to have more to look forward to, in spite of this week’s events, than the stagnating Romanians.

Post-defeat, Romania celebrate qualification. [Source: @GeorgianRugby]
In the short term, the Oaks will play away against Fiji and Tonga this June, and hopefully against other strong opposition in November. This entire schedule was at risk with the prospect of the repechage; all involved can now breathe a sigh of relief. On 20th September 2019, Romania will be the focus of world rugby attention, playing the opening match of the next World Cup against hosts Japan. They will then take on Scotland, Ireland and either Samoa or Spain, or almost inconceivably Portugal. (Let’s save discussion of the gruelling Pool A match schedule for another time.) But let nobody be fooled: this is not a great team, and there is much work to be done if they are to secure even one win at the finals.

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