A tough decision for Romania
ENGLAND'S coaches have tried to fathom how they spent so much of their second World Cup pool match trapped in their own territory by a band of peripatetic eastern Europeans - if the game had been decided on territory alone, Georgia would have won by a country mile - and wondering which six-figure salaried Premiership player to call in as replacement for the stricken Andrew Sheridan. Romania? They were in "make do and mend" mode, as always. "It is a struggle for us, but we fight on," said Romeo Gontineac, his tone quiet and measured. "We will always fight, and fight hard."
Unfortunately for a country that could - probably should - have been invited to play in an expanded Five Nations Championship during their heyday in the 1980s, this fighting spirit will not be enough to spare them when they face England at the Otago Stadium this coming Saturday. Gontineac is not laying awake at night wrestling with selection issues in the usual sense of hitting on a combination that might actually prevail. Rather, he is weighing up the risks of fielding a weakened side against the Six Nations champions in the hope of keeping important personnel fresh for the winnable contest with Georgia in Palmerston North in eight days. "We will think a great deal about this and have many discussions," said the coach, whose support staff includes the former All Black prop Steve McDowall, who anchored the New Zealand scrum during the triumphant World Cup campaign in 1987. "To play something less than our best team against England is difficult, but Georgia is an important game for us. To win that would do much to rebuild interest in rugby in our country."
Gontineac is one of the key figures in Romanian rugby, and has been since he played the first of his 75 Tests as a centre shortly before the 1995 World Cup. He was selected for three subsequent tournaments and after retiring in 2008, he succeeded the Frenchman Serge Lairle as national coach. It is a profoundly difficult job, but as adversity is just about all he has ever known when it comes to his chosen sport - the man from the village of Hlipiceni, in the far south-east of the country, came to prominence after the fall of the Ceausescu regime in 1989 and therefore missed the golden age by a few years - he is well equipped to make a decent fist of it.
"When I look back at our rugby and on what might have been, I am sad," he admitted. "At the same time I am realistic, and realism is important for us at this moment. In 1989, when we had a very strong team, there were 60 or 70 good clubs in Romania. Now, we have only 12 playing at the top level. Before Ceausescu fell, we were a professional team in an amateur sport: the government was ambitious for our rugby and supported it because success showed Romania could fight against bigger, more powerful nations and win. Today? Today, we are an amateur team in a professional sport."
Back in the Ceausescu era, the links between the Romanian armed forces and the national rugby side were extremely strong. The police were also into the union game in a big way while many of the country's major manufacturing concerns also ran teams. As a result of this institutional backing, the players were among the fittest, best-prepared in Europe - so much so that the moment the traditional rugby powers condescended to play full Tests against the Romanians, they found themselves finishing second. Wales were spanked 24-6 in Bucharest and then lost to the "Oaks" in Cardiff, while Scotland went down to them in 1984. France copped it more than once and had it not been for two disallowed tries during a match in 1981, the All Blacks themselves would have been at serious risk of defeat.
Then came the revolution: one of the more violent episodes in the collapse of eastern European communism and the drawing back of the Iron Curtain. Several prominent Romanian players died in the course of the uprising and although the Test side continued to function for a while - famously, they beat the French in Auch the year after Ceausescu's overthrow - the country's economy disintegrated. "The trouble went deep down, right to the bottom," Gontineac said. "Everything changed."
The task of changing back again is more challenging than anything an England coach could begin to imagine, for there is no money on offer, public or private. There are no local billionaires ready to transform the fortunes of the sport with the signing of a single cheque, and as McDowall explained, the current Romanian government has more important things to address than the reconstruction of the country's rugby infrastructure. As a consequence, efforts to inspire a new generation of youngsters to take up the sport face some very substantial obstacles.
"We're trying to get the game back into the schools, but the schools are concrete classrooms with no fields," McDowall said. "And then there's the fear factor amongst parents who worry that rugby is a very physical game. Also, the support from the International Rugby Board is very fragmented. There's a lot of politics involved in setting things moving in Romania and I'm not sure how keen the IRB is on getting fully involved. Basically, we need better structures if we're going to move forward. Putting them in place isn't easy."
Assuming Gontineac picks his two best forwards - the Perpignan hooker Marius Tincu and his clubmate, the flanker Ovidiu Tonita - against England, the Romanians will at least have some sharp-end experience on which to draw. But two men do not make a team, even though the former, the son of a Transylvanian farmer, has been one of the more memorable performers at this tournament. Tincu suspects that the immediate way ahead for the strongest Romanian players is to negotiate themselves professional contracts in France or England, in much the same way that the top-notch Argentines have done in recent years. Yet that is far easier said than done, like everything connected with the sport in Romania.
"I see evolution in our rugby and the more people we have playing in the Top 14 or the Premiership, the better it will be for us," Tincu said. "If you stay in Romania you can be the best in Romania, but this is not the same as stepping outside the country and playing hard games every week. Where are the contracts coming from, though? With the financial situation as it is in Europe, it is more difficult to find a club."
All things considered, it is hard to believe that men like Gontineac and Tincu are not in despair. And yet. "Our performance against Scotland in the first game earned us some respect, and respect is very important to us," the coach said. "If we had not qualified for this tournament, I cannot imagine what would have happened to Romanian rugby. But we are here and we have one good game behind us. I think we can return home having achieved something."