Rugby has very strong British roots and as been exported to Japan and Argentina. Romania and now Georgia have attended numerous World Cups. But just how did rugby end up in both Transylvania and the Caucasus?
By Phil Taylor
New Zealand, England, Scotland, Australia, Ireland, Wales, France and South Africa are usually the first countries to spring to mind when you mention international rugby. However, two of the game’s minnows are Romania and Georgia but the following in the country is as big as the aforementioned countries. So why is rugby prominent in Romania and Georgia?
As with the countries mentioned there is a direct link to the British Empire with Britain introducing many sports to their former colonies. Countries have adopted rugby as their national sport for example New Zealand’s national sport is rugby union and they have gone on to win the World Cup six times. But where is the colonial link to Romania and Georgia? Well there is none.
History of rugby in Romania
In Romania, the influence actually came from France. In 1913, students had returned from studying in France with rugby balls that they had picked up on their travels and started to show their friends how to play. From that clubs such as Stadiul Roman were formed. All in all seventeen other clubs were formed in the capital city of Bucharest.
The national team played their debut game against the USA in 1919 which was played in France after the First World War; the Romanians lost 21-0. But their first competitive game was against France as they tried to establish a tournament away from the five nations. The Romanian rugby team have taken part in eight world cups since it started in 1987 but their best result has been just winning one game at the tournament.
The communist regime used rugby union as a propaganda tool during the Cold War with the West. The Romanian rugby side were heralded for their wins and shown to be more elite than teams in the West. However, with the fall of communism the sport suffered during the 1990s with state funding lacking for clubs and the national side.
Romania do have some silverware in the cabinet as they have won the Rugby Europe International Championships 10 times. The championship is unofficially called the Six Nations B as tier two sides compete for the trophy.
History of rugby in Georgia
Like their rivals Romania, there is no colonial link. However, the sport owes much to the the game of ‘Lelo burti’, a game resembling medieval football in Britain where teams from villages compete to move a ball (weighing several kilogrammes and blessed by a priest) towards a marked area known as the ‘Lelo’.
As in Romania, the Soviet Union’s collapse had a huge affect on the country, as after 1991, they struggled to become an established national side and built up tensions with Russia.
They are currently the champions of the Rugby Europe International Championships and have won it two more times than Romania; 12 in total.
Popularity in both countries
During the 1980s, Romania were a real threat and they are considered the forgotten generation of players with the revolution taking hold and stunting the growth of the sport. Many former professionals have spoke about that Romanian side and said how tough they were to play against.
The rebirth of Georgian rugby goes to Claude Saurell. The Frenchman was appointed head coach of the national team in 1999 and managed to change the face of rugby in the country.
In more recent times the countries have both got a national league and in Romania teams can also take part in the European Challenge Cup.
The nations might be small be still have to compete with football for popularity and it is an issue that needs addressing to get more people involved in rugby at a younger age. However, if the countries are still able to be represented at World Cups then the next generation will be able to laud their heroes.
There will always be that hope that Romania or Georgia will topple a tier one side and that will be remembered forever in their respected countries.
Could either country challenge?
Despite the success in the tier two competition and playing against the smaller sides of rugby it looks highly unlikely that either side could really challenge on the next level. However, that is not to say that the hunger is not there.
Georgia’s former coach Milton Haig stated how playing against tier one sides will help,
“Because you play one game, then you don’t really get an opportunity to review that and go back in and play the same type of team the following week to see if your performance has improved.
“There’s no disrespect to the other tier twos that we play because they’re obviously competitive matches, but we kind of think that for us to take the next step definitely we need more tier one games.”
Speaking earlier this year Romanian, and former Scotland coach and England assistant, Andy Robinson felt optimistic for the future, “I’m going in with my eyes wide open. Next year is the qualification for the World Cup so for me it’s about seeing the players, see how they work in training and whether they can put what we do in training into the matches, and also seeing how they meet the challenge of five games in seven weeks.”
But former interim head coach Marius Tincu feels the issue needs to be addressed at grassroots,
“After the analysis made when I was interim head coach, I realised how much work must be done at youth level to have children, players, coaches and educators ready to make the move to teams in the [Romanian] Super League or abroad,” Tincu said. “We must succeed in making children dream of rugby and of playing for the national team. We will create a training plan for all age groups that we must all follow.”
Would it be beneficial to join the six nations?
Some have wondered how they would facilitate a space for either Romania or Georgia to enter the six nations. It has been speculated that it would be made into five nations once again with the bottom side dropping out into a three-team league with Romania and Georgia. This league would be played simultaneously alongside the six nations and whoever won the lower league would win promotion.
The only question mark would be could the two countries challenge the tier one sides? It would be a challenge, but they should be given the opportunity.
Photo Credits – Georgia Rugby and FRR