Monday, February 3, 2014

International Rugby - Weekend Wrap

Italy pushed Wales in Cardiff
Professional rugby took a break this weekend in Europe as the international agenda kicked-off for 2014 with a full round of matches in both the Six Nations and European Nations Cup. The Tier One competition produced some competitive matches with teams showing great potential to go far in Rugby World Cup 2015. Further down in the European Nations Cup both Georgia and Romania edged closer to securing places in the World Cup and Russia managed a win to put them well on the path to face Uruguay for the RWC repechage place.

Georgia 35-0 Belgium
Last year the fixture was a tight one and one where the Black Devils nearly pulled off a huge upset against a horribly off form Lelos side, but this year played in difficult conditions with snow on the ground and a temperature of -4 degrees, Georgia easily thrashed Belgium in Tbilisi.

Georgia wrapped up the try bonus point within 32 minutes and still were persisting with a much wider game they have played since Milton Haig took charge in 2012 despite the snow, but they really could have won this game however they wanted as they dominated in virtually every facet of the game and the margin may well have been more had conditions been easier.

Georgia move on to travel away to Portugal next week and will be expected to win and set up a winner takes all clash with their big ENC rivals Romania. Belgium meanwhile will travel to Spain for a big pressure game that will have a big say on whether they will still be playing in the division next year.

Romania 24-0 Portugal
Like Georgia, Romania also recorded the expected comfortable home win at the modern FIFA 5 star stadium in Cluj. Chances of either of the big two losing home matches in the ENC look remote at the minute and it is more of a question about whether they get the bonus point or not, and on this occasion Romania missed the chance for 5 points on the table and will be disappointed only to have scored 2 tries.

The win though was hardly in doubt for Romania, they were 16-0 up at half time and completely dominated the scrum and the diamond of their backline Catalin Fercu having created a try. Portugal had a bad match with sloppy handling errors and failed to push Romania hard.

Romania have a tricky trip to Russia who they will be forced to play in the freezing conditions of Krasnodar instead of Sochi which is hosting the Winter Olympics, it was the venue that hosted the infamous battle in the snow where the Russians nearly endless Georgian losing streak in 2008. Portugal who's slim chances of RWC qualification are now thin to the bone after Russia's win, will take on leaders Georgia in Lisbon which despite home advantage, the Lobos will be underdogs with poor recent form.


Spain 25-28 Russia
If there was any chance of a side other than Russia getting the 3rd ENC spot then Spain really had to win this home match against the Bears. Spain came in with high hopes having recalled their French players who got them to 2nd in the 2012 ENC, and Russia coming into the game after looking dreadfully uncompetitive in wide losses to Japan and USA last November.

However the match didn't go to plan for the Lions as Russia ploughed ahead to an big 23-3 lead that went against the form book, Spain came back hard into the match to get to 28-25 and had an attack to win in the dying minutes but were denied.

Russia now have a massive 12 point cushion in 3rd place and the big playoff match with Uruguay to fight for a place in Pool A alongside England, Australia, Wales and Fiji at the 2015 World Cup now is pretty certain. Despite that though qualifying automatically for the RWC aren't too high with the top two clearly stronger sides, if Russia have any ambitions of achieving that like they did for the 2011 tournament they will need to beat Romania next week. Spain move out of  the bottom spot with a losing bonus point and are left to fight with Portugal and Belgium for survival, they host the Black Devils next week.

Overall ENC 1A RWC qualification standings
1. Georgia - 24
2. Romania - 23
3. Russia - 18
4. Portugal - 7
5. Spain - 6
6. Belgium - 5

Wales 23-15 Italy
In a scrappy game, Wales as expected overcame Italy at the Millennium Stadium but it was by no means an easy win. Neither side really got flowing and the points were more through opposition errors than great play with a howler by in the opening minutes by Angelo Esposito and an intercept pass by Leigh Halfpenny.

Wales won't be overly happy with the result especially as it is a potential chance to boost points difference for the final table standings, something that cost England dear last year when they only won by 6 points against Italy when if they had won by more they would have had a much better chance of still winning the tournament in defeat to Wales. Italy will be happier though as they were expected to lose by a wider margin but also be annoyed as they could have come closer.

Next week will be huge as Wales travel to Ireland in a game that has lots of bad blood in it at the moment with the Irish fuming at Gatland for dropping Brian O'Driscoll last summer on the Lions tour and are resentful to the Welsh regions. Italy travel to France for another tough fixture, and one they will not be expected to win given their miserable away record in the tournament of just 1 win.


France 26-24 England
In a more exciting game, France rushed into an early lead at the Stade de France with tries from Yoann Huget but then tired and England gradually grew in control to comeback from 16-3 to regain the lead in the second half, France though against the run of play scored a good try from Gael Fickou with 78 minutes gone to snatch the match at the death.

The win is very important for France who beat just Scotland and Tonga last year, a poor tournament will likely cost Philippe Saint-Andre his job. The win also keep alive the possibilty of the repeated pattern of France winning after a Lions tour in the professional era. England meanwhile will be disappointed to lose the Grand Slam, but they had a very inexperienced backline out and were a bit unlucky to lose at the death, they are still prime contenders for the championship as they play both Wales and Ireland at home.

France will host Italy next week and will be expected to win 2 games in a row for the first time since 2012. England travel to Scotland and will also be expected to win but not as strong a favourites as France will be.

Ireland 28-6 Scotland
Despite being on even terms for much of the first half, Scotland were easily beaten by Ireland in the least competitive 6 Nations game of the weekend. A try before half time changed the game and Scotland who clearly had a malfunctioning lineout were hapless in the second half as Ireland pulled away.

The performance by Scotland was the worst of the weekend and if they don't improve they will repeat their 2012 performance of no wins. Ireland were not special but made fewer errors and now get an early advantage on points difference.

Ireland stay at home next week but will face a harder test against Wales in what will be the most anticipated match of the weekend. Scotland play in the Calcutta Cup against England and have a lot to work on from this performance.


6 Nations standings
1. Ireland - 2
2. Wales - 2
3. France - 2
4. England - 0
5. Italy - 0
6. Scotland - 0

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