European Nations Cup Rugby: Russia and Georgia march on

Russian Rugby Scrum HalfWins for Russia and Georgia in this weekend’s round of European Nations Cup matches means that these two teams have all but secured their qualification to the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

All that really remains is to await their head to head match, which will probably decide who wins the title, and who is placed in which World Cup Group. More of that later, though. First, the match reports:

Spain 20 – 38 Russia

Russia were always the favourites to win this tie, but the margin of victory doesn’t tell the full story of what was a very close match in which the unfancied Spanish gave their all. Four minutes into the second half, Russia were ahead by a mere three points, the score 20-23, and they were by no means certain of victory.

Up until then, the two teams had been trading penalties and tries more or less evenly. Although Spain had opened the scoring with an early penalty, it was Russia who crossed the try line first, Victor Gres diving over after just eight minutes to soothe the Russian team’s early nerves. Russia must have thought that they would run away with the match when, just six minutes later, Igor Klyuchnikov broke the try line yet again. A quick conversion from fly-half Yury Kushnarev, and Russia were flying at 14:3.

But Spain showed real grit to put their first try on the board after just 18 minutes of play, and a penalty after 24 minutes brought them back within a point of Russia – 13:14.

Although another couple of penalties allowed Russia to pull away slightly – by just after half time their lead had been restored to a slightly more comfortable ten points – the Spanish demonstrated that they weren’t done yet as they powered over the line for their second try of the match. The conversion made the score 20:23 with just four minutes gone of the second half.

Spain continued to battle, but Russia’s endurance and greater experience showed in the end as they relentlessly ground away, their consistency allowing them to break the Spanish line twice in the last 20 minutes of the game to put the result beyond doubt. Russia’s final two tries came from fly half Kushnarev (who is proving himself to be one of the real stars of this Russian team) and Alexander Yanyushkina.

Portugal 10 – 16 Georgia

In possibly the most important match of the round, Portugal gave their all, but saw their hopes of an automatic qualification place for the RWC dashed by a very strong Georgian team.

Tries from Georgian scrum half Irakli Abuseridze and Portugal’s Australian fly-half Adrian Gardner (who you’ll remember also crossed the line in last week’s match against Russia) demonstrated that there was very little between the two teams early on. In fact, by the half, there were only three points between the two teams.

However, as in the Russia-Spain game, Georgia’s experience and the strength of their forwards told in the second half. Although Portugal put up an impressive fight, a penalty and drop goal allowed Georgia to ease away to a 16:10 victory.

Portugal will be gutted at the way that this tournament has turned out for them – in the four matches against top teams Russia and Georgia they have drawn one and lost three by margins of four points, four points and six points respectively. There has, in truth, been almost nothing to choose between the three teams and, had the luck gone with them, they could easily have been top of the table leaving Russia and Georgia to scrap it out for the second qualifying spot.

All of Portugal’s hopes now will rest on finishing third, which will put them through to a complex play off system against other, lower ranked, European teams. If they can secure third place, they should still have a good chance of getting to the World Cup.

Romania 67 – 5 Germany

Perhaps best to draw a veil over this game. Germany are sadly showing that they are outclassed at this level, and will probably welcome a drop back to the second division to regroup. Romania on the other hand, will have been pleased to have a confidence boosting workout ahead of next week’s trip to snowy Russia.

Where does this leave the teams?

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A quick look at the table shows that Russia and Georgia are now virtually out of reach of third placed Portugal. For Russia to be overhauled, they would need to lose all of their next three matches, including against wooden spoon favourites Germany. If we assume that Georgia and Russia have now cemented their qualification to RWC 2011, the only issues still in doubt are who out of Georgia and Russia will top the table, and whether Portugal or Romania will grab the third place spot, which offers a back door playoff route to the World Cup Finals.

The title will be decided by Russia and Georgia’s trip to Turkey in March (a neutral venue, because of the 2008 war between the two countries). Winner of the European Nations Cup will have the honour of playing in Pool B of the 2011 Rugby World Cup against Argentina, England, Scotland and another (not yet decided) qualifier. Runner up will be placed in Pool C, where they will face matches against Australia, Ireland, Italy and the United States.

Russia are probably the favourites to finish second, which would certainly set up an intriguing Russia vs United States match. However, the cynic in me also notes that Pool C is the easier of the two groups and asks, would Georgia prefer to finish second in order to qualify for the easier group. Georgia are a nation on the cusp of making a big breakthrough on the world stage. I think that they could easily beat the United States, and could give a demoralised Italian side a very good run for their money.

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