Chaos reigns in European Tier 2 rugby. Following the surprising and controversial Belgian win over Spain in the last round of the Rugby Europe Championship, which totally unexpectedly sent Romania to the 2019 World Cup in their place (read about it here before continuing!), things have gone from bad to worse. In recent years, ill feeling among the “Six Nations B” (read: continent’s second-class citizens) has been mostly limited to the relationships between Romania and Georgia (rugby reasons), and Georgia and Russia (how long have you got?). Now things look set to deteriorate among the other competitors.
In the aftermath of the Leones’ disastrous loss in Brussels, the Spanish media were quick to denounce the (undeniably bad) performance of the Romanian referee as deliberately partial and the result of a corrupt appointment made by a crooked ruling body headed up by another Romanian. Some of the players made similar comments in public. Worse still, even the Spanish rugby federation’s official media channels launched a war of words in strident terms. It trolled social media and garnered lots of apparent support from prominent and less prominent figures in the game. Most of these cheerleaders, who could be found demanding a rematch and #JusticeforSpainRugby, had not seen the match in question (since the replay was temporarily unavailable). Some were probably incensed by the penalty count in the Belgians’ favour, which the Spaniards had enthusiastically exaggerated. Some probably don’t watch any Tier 2 rugby from one World Cup to the next. Yet the Spanish federation cited these expert tweeters in their open letter to World Rugby to investigate the circumstances around the match. An online petition with 43,000 signatures was also adduced as evidence that Something Must Be Done.
The level of attention given to Spain by World Rugby and the media in the fortnight leading up to the final round of REC fixtures, proclaiming them a coming force in the game to the sound of hand-rubbing at the prospect of a big new market on the Six Nations’ doorstep, left a bad taste with followers of other REC nations. Romania, Russia, even Georgia, have rarely been afforded such exposure, in spite of being consistently more successful than Spain for as long as anyone can remember. Spain – and Germany, before their admin/money problems resulted in an entire squad sitting out the tournament – have been openly courted by the authorities and it looks to the observer like the rest are out of favour in some way.
The current situation is this: Rugby Europe are investigating the behaviour of certain Spanish players at the final whistle in Brussels. World Rugby have been investigating RE’s appointment of the officials for the game. They met and agreed in principle to holding a replay of the Belgium v Spain clash. However, events moved on and WR now have something else on their plate…
A few days after the competition was concluded in such high drama, Russia Rugby lodged a complaint with the global governing body about the eligibility of a Romanian player of Tongan origin, Sione Faka’osilea. This complaint, which concerns the centre’s appearances for the sevens team of the country of his birth, will have to be fully investigated. If, as seems likely, Romania are found to have fielded an ineligible player, all hell breaks loose, although exactly how is still unclear. Tahiti were recently found to have committed this offence in their win over the Cook Islands last summer, meaning it is the latter who will take part in the World Cup repêchage – but this was only a one-match qualification process. Romanian results from games in which Faka’osilea played could be annulled; the country could be expelled from the World Cup; or the punishment could be purely financial. But it is conceivable that, if the Russians’ petition is upheld, further complaints would be submitted to WR by one or other of the competing unions: this is because there are similar eligibility question marks over Spain’s Mathieu Belie, and a Belgian player too. It is far-fetched but not impossible that all three countries would end up barred from the World Cup. This would mean the (somewhat ironic) scenario of Russia qualifying as the best honest team. Then the next stage of qualifying, Portugal’s playoff, scheduled for later this month, would (ridiculously) be against Germany, who this year became the worst team in REC history, conceding an average of more than 70 points per game.
Whatever happens next, some people are going to be mighty angry. The knee-jerk reaction from hacks, mildly interested figures from Tier 1 nations, and others not intimately familiar with this competition, merely shows up the lack of support for the minnows from the people with the money and the power in the European game. Ultimately, the root of this particular tangle is the refusal by RE to replace the Romanian officials – who had been, perfectly reasonably, assigned to the Belgium v Spain game at the start of the campaign – when it became clear that there was a possible conflict of interest. This error is compounded by the RE members’ failure to implement a TMO facility at this level, and World Rugby’s head-breakingly convoluted international eligibility rules. If World Rugby finds serious defects in the way the under-funded and apparently rather amateurish Rugby Europe is run, there is a possibility of proper reform, which could only be good for this level of the sport. But first we have to suffer the agonies of possible disqualifications and the dragging of Europe’s also-rans through the mud.