Romania had an excellent November campaign, with clear wins against both Canada and the USA. The Oaks were playing a fast and spectacular brand of rugby, the pool of players available was greater than ever and the qualification campaign for the Rugby World Cup in Japan seemed to be just a formality.
However, the Rugby Europe Championship (REC) started with a shocking defeat against Germany, one of the worst results in the entire history of Romanian rugby. The Germans won 41-38, scoring more points against the Oaks than any other Tier 2 nation in recent history.
The second match, at home vs Spain, was now crucial. Romania managed to win 13-3 but it was a poor performance and the modern gameplan from November seemed like a distant memory. It was like the team has regressed ten years in just several months, being unable to execute anything but the most basic forward-powered attacks.
What has caused this sudden lack of form ? We can only guess.
One obvious reason is the unfavorable calendar. The REC is played during the same months as the Six Nations, which suits the Western European nations but not the Eastern European ones. Harsh winter conditions stop all outside sports in Romania and make training almost impossible, the local SuperLiga pauses from early December until late March. This used to be less of a problem when many of the Oaks were based in France but it is not the case anymore due to the strengthening of the domestic competition, most of the squad comes from Romanian clubs and the players lack both fitness and match practice.
Another problem was the disastrous campaign of SuperLiga champions Timisoara Saracens in the Challenge Cup. Timisoara has a very hard group but spirits were high and the club was eager to prove its strength in an international competition. It turned into a complete rout, with very heavy defeats, one cancelled match and a sizable fine from the EPCR.
The extra matches put Timisoara’s squad under serious strain and several key players got injured and become unavailable for the Oaks. The rest of their squad was broken, physically exhausted after a long season without a break and demoralized due to the very poor results. This had a significant effect on the national team, since Timisoara contributes more than one third of its players.
The third possible cause is the arrogance and complacency of the team after the November results. Against Germany, the Oaks were able to play fast rugby and score almost as will, whenever they took the match seriously. They built a considerable lead twice, before becoming relaxed again. This allowed the Germans to come back into the game and eventually earn a historic victory.
That being said, the situation looks very different from inside the team. Oaks lock Johannes van Heerden thinks it was normal for this season to be much harder than the last one and there isn’t really a drop in the level of the national team.
“What people don’t understand is that each team in our group has the opportunity to go to the World Cup so they all will be much tougher than last year. So I would say all the teams trained hard to get to the level we are and that is showing,” says van Heerden.
He added that the forward tactics against Spain were normal given the state of the pitch. “We didn’t change our playing style, it was always going to be a forward game with the weather conditions being wet and the field cleaned from the snow so we just adapted to that. I know the fans come for a spectacle and we always try our best to give them one, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do. We played for the win because playing good rugby doesn’t take you to the world cup, winning does.”
The Oaks lock welcomes the two weeks of rest ahead of the away match in Russia. “Sometimes your body needs rest after a hard game and we still have a program to follow this week so we are going to work hard on our own because that’s what being a professional is all about. Of course, it would be a good thing to stay together and work more but it won’t affect us because we are going to work hard and stay fit to come back and beat Russia.”
Despite the rocky start, van Heerden says the Oaks are very confident of RWC qualification and calls for the fans to fully support the team.
Credits : frr.ro