28 May 2012

The rise and fall of Romanian rugby - IRB Nations Cup set for kick-off

Many years ago, if you looked down your National side’s fixture list on tour and saw the words ROMANIA – Bucharest; it’s fair to say that it may have caused a fair bit of angst and trepidation. They had a very distinctive style of play built around an imposing and bruising pack of forwards. Welsh great Phil Bennett once famously remarked that the name ‘All Blacks’ sent a ‘shiver up your spine’ and ‘shudder through your heart’. Romania was not far behind in the intimidation stakes.
Throughout the early 20th Century, Romania had seen as a viable threat to the Home Nations’ domination in Europe. While they were not involved in the ‘Five Nations’, they were included in the Nations Cup from 1966 until 1973 and from then on the FIRA Trophy until 1997. Other sides competing included France, Italy and the Soviet Union. Even Nazi Germany had a go during the first four tournaments in the 1930’s.

However, despite the fact that France was a powerhouse in European Rugby (as shown by their ‘Five Nations’ success); it had been Romania who regularly lifted the trophy. Their Trophy cabinet shows successful teams in 1969, 1975, 1977, 1981 and 1983. Some uninformed pundits may argue that the competition wasn’t strong....but looking at the facts, France were ‘Five Nations’ Grand Slam winners in 1967, 1968, 1970, 1977, 1981 and 1983. Arguably, Romania could have been given the unofficial tag of ‘Best Team in Europe’.
1980's Romania's Heyday

The 1980’s were definitely Romania’s heyday. In this period they boasted more than 12,000 players in across 110 clubs domestically. If the previous argument didn’t convince you of their strengths, other notable victories had also come over Wales (twice) as well as the 1984 Scotland team (which had won the Grand Slam). In 1981, Romania also came perilously close to beating the All Blacks, losing 14 -6. If it wasn’t for two disallowed tries, they may have achieved something truly special. After all, a Test victory over NZ is a feat neither Argentina, Ireland, Scotland nor Italy have been able to achieve in their long rugby histories.
But where is Romania now? Many top class players would see a match against Romania as an opportunity to get on the score-sheet a few times. Indeed when Romania played England in 2001, they lost miserably, going down 134 points to nil. That score was hardly grounds for an optimistic future. Given their sudden demise on the International circuit, what was the reason for their success and their subsequent dramatic fall?
Rugby Politics Intrinsicly Linked

The main factor behind their success was the influence of Politics. The National side was heavily linked to the nation’s communist regime. It used rugby like the Soviet Union used the Olympics. It was a propaganda tool, where every notable victory over ‘Western’ opposition was presented as a direct result of their Communist ideology. One might suggest that like their soviet counter-parts, performance enhancing drug abuse may have been a factor contributing to success. It may have...and we won’t ever know for sure, but one thing we do know was that they had an outstanding team and the structures were all in place to support their success.

Huge financial resources were directed into rugby (sadly at the detriment of domestic development in the country). Top players were employed in the army or the police, whose teams, Steaua and Dynamo, practiced six days a week in superb sporting centres. This infrastructure bred a talented national side able to match any other in the world. When you consider the importance given to rugby by the regime, it is perhaps unsurprising that they became so successful so quickly.
As mentioned earlier, rugby, was not just a sport, it was a tool.  Former All Black scum half Chris Laidlaw wrote that rugby in the 70’s and 80’s was a positive force in East-West relations at the time:
"Rugby tours between countries on either side of the Iron Curtain have generated considerable political interest among the governments concerned, and the results can be quite astonishing. The recent Romanian tour of New Zealand, for instance, germinated other contacts between the two countries and was partly instrumental in the establishment of new trade agreements which otherwise might not have begun”.
The Fall of the Iron Curtain and the Fall of Romanian Rugby

Therefore, once the communist regime fell in Romania, so too did the importance of rugby. No longer was it supported financially. Some players even fell by the way side too, defending the country’s leadership. Florica Murariu for instance, the Romanian Skipper and an Army officer, was shot dead at a road block during the 1989 revolution. There were several others who met a similar fate.

Since their communist regime fell and professionalism occurred in Rugby, the number of clubs in Romania has declined to a miserly 28. The numbers of amateurs playing around the country has also apparently fallen by 75% according to the last survey. It is no surprise given these statistics that the National side is no longer a ‘tour de force’ globally.

Hope on the Horizon for the Eastern Bloc

However, there is always hope. During the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, Romania (as well as Georgia and Russia) appeared visibly stronger and we have seen a greater influx of players from the National sides competing in the main European Leagues. Marius Tincu, Ovidiu Tonita and Silvio Florea are well known names in the French Top 14, while Paulica Ion can be seen plying his trade in the Aviva Premiership in England for London Irish. All of them represent Romania. Vasily Artemyev, the big Russian winger has also joined Northampton Saints this year after an impressive World Cup. Therefore, while Romania may not be as dominant as they once were, the ‘Eastern Bloc’ is definitely on the rise. If the IRB can continue to invest in that region....we may just see some new forces in International Rugby....and perhaps the resurgence of an old one too.

2012 IRB Nations Cup Set for kick-off

If this article has whet your appetite for some Tier 2 action, the IRB nations Cup is set for kick-off in Romania this June. Six nations will be competing, with Russia, Portugal, Uruguay, the Argentina Jaguars and an Emerging Italy side joining the hosts in Bucharest. The ecent will run from June 8 to June 17th with all games played in the same stadium and triple-header matchdays.

For anyone wondering why Georgia are not involved in the competition, they will be embarking on their own tour to North America, where they will face the USA Eagles on June 16th and Canada on June 23rd. Given how valiantly they played in the last World Cup in NZ, it should be a great couple of weekends.


  1. Exquisite post sir! Very very intersting indeed.

    I had no idea Romania had been such a force, but I guess your history lesson explains it all!

    Great to see Georgia will be touring the Americas too. Should be an excellent couple of test matches there. It's a pity that the IRB Nations Cup couldn't be set for another date though, and then Georgia could be involved in both. It's progress anyway.

  2. Anonymous28 May, 2012

    Agree with the above. That was a terrific read.

    Despite the optimism though, I can't see Romania scaling those heights again. Unless they have some real funding from the IRB, which still probably would never be enough in reality.

  3. Thank you.

    I think it would be difficult to get back to those levels. Realistically their strength was down to the emphasis which was given to sport under the communist ideology in the eastern bloc.

    Even with funding, it would be difficult, but increased competition should at least make them more competitive. I think we saw huge improvements from the lesser sides in the last world cup and hopefully that progression will continue.

    Great to see Argentina included in the new rugby championship too. I'm sure they will find it difficult at times but they have been knocking on the door for some time now. Something had to be done.

  4. Wow, great post. Who would have guessed that romania used to be so good. Well I say used to, they still nearly beat Scotland. (hangs head in shame)

    1. Thanks Callum.

      Yes Romania almost created a huge upset. Tha match was a little too early for me though 9especially as I presumed it would be a walkover!).

      Georgia and Russia also put in some good performances though, even if they didn't come quite as close to a win as Romania did!

      The only way is up for Scotland!