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A busy weekend saw six test matches played in Europe. The twelve best European rugby nations were involved in either the Six Nations championship or the European Nations Cup - the latter of which doubled as Rugby World Cup 2015 qualification. The headlines concerning the big wins recorded by England, France and Ireland were therefore, in actuality, of secondary importance. Georgia and Romania all but secured their places in England & Wales 2015 while Russia increasingly looks likely to be facing Uruguay in November with the winner securing the final spot at the World Cup.
Russia 3-34 Romania
If you were to pin point any single game that sums up Russia's appalling post RWC form both on and off the field, this would be it. With usual ground Sochi unavailable due to the Winter Olympics, Russia moved the game to Krasnodar despite it being highly likely to be frozen off there (thanks to no heated or artificial pitches) and then moved it astonishingly to Nebug; a small village with less than 4,000 population and just one sports facility with no stands for spectators or changing rooms and could be easily mistaken for an amateur park team, yet this hosted a RWC qualifier between sides who both in the world's top 20. As the Krasnodar venue was so obviously not going to work, many guessed Russia were playing dirty tactics in attempting to get the game postponed and putting the Romanians at a disadvantage either having to play the game without their Top 14 players or face an inconvenient travel from the plans they had already booked in Krasnodar to a village hardly appropriate for international rugby.
Romania were within their rights to turn down the venue change and see the match postponed but opted against it, and then in turn we saw the other side of Russia's post RWC awfulness - the on field part. In the 2011 tournament the Bears had high hopes and won many media over with their good running backs game, but under Kingsley Jones since then they hardly come even close to beating a top 18 ranked side. Remember this is a side that qualified as Europe 2 for the 2011 tournament ahead of Romania and now can't get even close.
For Romania's part they have made big progress since the 2011 tournament and rebuilt into a stronger side that plays to their strengths and easily thrashed Russia with a try bonus point to keep on track for the huge clash with Georgia in the final round, but the main talking points from the match was the utter farcical incompetence of the RUR (who have already messed up hosting the RWC 7's in recent months and seen home matches played in Colwyn Bay and random villages) and the considerably wide distance the national team has fallen away from the leading two. Russia's 18 year winless streak against Georgia doesn't look like it will end soon.
Portugal 9-34 Georgia
Despite Portugal having given the ENC favourites Georgia some tough times over the years in Lisbon, including their hardest match in their 2011 Grand Slam of the tournament, this was not one of them. Portugal are not on good form and sacking Errol Brain after last year's tournament does not seem to have done them much good, they lost heavily at home to Fiji and Canada in November and Georgia had little issue dismissing them. The Lelos were pushing for a bonus point try late on when the game ended bizarrely at 78 minutes on the TV clock.
Georgia keep ticking over and approach their home game with big rivals Russia in decent form, much better than it was at this point last year, and they should win that game easily. Portugal meanwhile have no chance of getting to the World Cup like they did in 2007, and instead will travel to Belgium for what will be a big relegation clash, which was hardly what the Lobos were hoping for at this stage of the tournament this time last year.
Spain 11-6 Belgium
After finishing last in the 2013 ENC and although last year cost Spain any chance of RWC qualification, they have brought back in the reinforcements from France for 2014 which has strengthened them again and they recorded an important home win over Belgium in a relegation battle.
It was a tight low scoring match, with just one try separating the sides. Spain are by no means out of the relegation race, but with two games with Romania and Georgia coming up and the Portugal game being away from home this was a game that simply had to be won. Belgium are the favourites for relegation and their next game against Portugal at home is equally a must win for them now and a loss would leave them with a small mountain to climb to stay up.
Overall ENC 1A RWC qualification standings
1. Georgia - 28
2. Romania - 28
3. Russia - 18
4. Spain - 10
5. Portugal - 7
6. Belgium - 6
Ireland 26-3 Wales
This was supposed to be one of the marquee games of the tournament, however it disappointed as it ended up being one sided. Wales put in one of the worst performances in recent years and coach Warren Gatland was out thought made to look one paced by his opposite Joe Schmidt. Gatland has stubbornly stuck by selections and it has come back to bite him, Lydiate is off form, Gethin Jenkins was not fit, Rhodri Jones not a tighthead and Andrew Coombs too lightweight for an international lock as back rowers in the second row is becoming dated with modern day set piece and it was shown up with some devastating Irish mauling.
With the margin of defeat and only a narrow home win over Italy last week, it would be very unlikely now for Wales to win a 3rd Championship in a row as their points difference is shot. They would have to really give a side a trashing to get back in contention. As for Ireland this was a big win and will give their confidence a huge boost but they will have to travel and face sterner tests at Twickenham and Paris if they are to win the Championship or a Grand Slam.
Scotland 0-20 England
Whilst Wales put in one of their worst performances in recent years, Scotland also followed suit and couldn't even manage a point on the board, it was one of the most miserable performances seen by the Scots for a while considering they were at home where they have made games tricky for opponents in the past. Both Canada and USA may fancy their chances of an upset this June if Scotland play like that again.
England dominated the whole match and really should have taken the game by a wider margin but nevertheless put themselves right back into contention for the Championship with both Ireland and Wales being home games.
France 30-10 Italy
Italy competed well with France at the Stade de France for most of the match but for 10 minutes after half time where France scored 3 converted tries to secure the game. Italy when they had the ball looked blunt and their goal kicking was wayward as well. Despite last year being one where neither Scotland or Italy finished in the bottom two, this time it looks like it will be a more typical 6 Nations with those two adrift from the rest and playing in a wooden Spoon decider in a fortnight's time.
France as expected picked up their second straight win but will have to travel for their next game against Wales at the Millennium Stadium. If they can get through that game, then with Scotland's recent form they stand a great chance of continuing their streak of winning the tournament in post Lions years.
6 Nations standings
1. Ireland - 4
2. France - 4
3. England - 2
4. Wales - 2
5. Italy - 0
6. Scotland - 0