Romania were once a force to be reckoned with in rugby but it will be very difficult for them to spring a surprise against Ireland today, writes Donal Lenihan
It’s 33 years since a callow second row sat on a small commuter plan in communist Romania, soothing Moss Keane’s anxiety about the impending flight to Iasc, 12 miles from the Russian border...
Only the elder statesmen of this Irish World Cup squad like Paul O’Connell and Mike Ross were even born when Romanian rugby was in its prime in the 1980’s and posed a serious threat to everyone.
Shaun Cronin, head sports reporter of breakingnews.ie, speaking to the Irish Examiner’s rugby correspondent Simon Lewis on Ireland’s RWC match against Romania this weekend. Video by Dan Linehan.
One of the main reasons for that was the top rugby players in Romania during the reign of communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, were professional in all but name while the rest of us remained true to our amateur status.
As with many communist regimes, sport was seen by the military as a means of demonstrating superiority and the majority of players with an aptitude for rugby were directed towards careers with the army or the police. All military personnel played their club rugby with Dinamo Bucharest, with their police equivalent directed towards Steaua Bucharest where they trained six days a week.
It seems incredible now, but between 1960 and 1990, Romania beat France eight times. The 1980s proved the most productive period for the national team and for a while it looked if Romania — and not Italy — would be the side that would force the expansion of the Five Nations Championship.
At the height of their powers, Romania defeated France in 1980, 1982 and 1990 while the 1984 Scotland Grand Slam side — with the vast majority of that team on board, were defeated 28-22 only three months after winning the Five Nations Championship. Romania also accounted for Wales in Bucharest in 1983 and at the Arms Park in 1988 and only lost 14-6 to New Zealand in 1981 after having two tries disallowed.
That Romanian side helped accelerate my elevation to representative rugby when they beat Munster in Thomond Park in 1980, forcing the selectors to contemplate change and the introduction of some new, young blood.
The following week the tourists drew 13-13 with Ireland at Lansdowne Road.
Moss Keane injured his shoulder that day, which opened a door for me. I was his replacement for Munster, making my debut alongside Brendan Foley in the win over Ulster in the opening round of the inter-provincial championship.
Two years later, Munster went on a three-match tour of Romania where we were exposed to a grim insight of how difficult daily life was in the country. Our opening game was played in Iasc (pronounced Yash), a rural city 12 miles from the Russian border, or modern day Moldova.
It was like travelling through a time tunnel. Although a large city — it boasts a population of 290,000 — my recollection is that there was only one model of car on the streets. It looked like something from the 1940’s and only came in black.
The food was appalling — pork for breakfast, lunch and dinner — while we later discovered that the telephones in the hotel were being tapped by the secret service. The flight up from Bucharest was interesting. We carried all our own bags to the cargo hold of the plane and when Moss Keane, a nervous flyer at the best of times, saw the steel rims protruding through the commuter plane’s bald tyres on the runway, he complained bitterly.
Within minutes an even larger specimen than Moss, decked out in full military regalia, hit the tyre with a big wooden mallet to show that, in his opinion, it was fit for purpose. Let’s just say it was a rather quiet flight to Iasc that afternoon. Thankfully we made it.
What we were unaware of was, earlier that year, the Ceausescu regime instituted an austerity programme geared towards completely eliminating the country’s entire foreign debt, which had soared to $10 billion. To address this, Ceausescu ordered the export of most of the country’s agricultural and industrial production. This resulted in extreme shortages of food, as we were about to find out, and other basic necessities which hit living standards immediately.
I can’t remember who we played in Iasc that day apart from the fact that we won. The post-match reception has gone down in Munster touring folklore as we ended up gate-crashing a wedding at the venue with, shall we say, severe consequences.
While we were welcomed with open arms, we failed to notice that the locals were watering down their house wine which, as some found to their cost, was like rocket fuel. The scenes boarding the team bus the following morning were not pretty. Our team doctor, Morgan Costelloe, earned his keep.
From there it was on to the beautiful city of Constanta on the Black Sea, playing against Farul Constanta who, 13 years later, hosted the first ever Heineken Cup match against Toulouse.
It was one of the dirtiest matches I ever played in but, in true Munster fashion, we won the fight and the match.
While many of the Romanian players were sheltered from the austerity measures that gripped the country— as members of the police and the military, they were the enforcers of the regime — it was very clear that by the time I came across them again in 1986, the brutal reality of life in that country was beginning to impact on all concerned.
Ireland awarded caps for the first time against Romania that year in a game made even more special for me as I was captain for the first time. Taking over the reins from the legendary Ciaran Fitzgerald was never going to be easy and given the amazing sequence of results achieved by that Romanian team, I was concerned about the challenge we faced.
I need not have worried as we romped to a 60-0 rout, a world record at the time, scoring 10 tries in the process. The Romanians were still hulking big men but the fight seemed to have left them.
The post-match reception was even more instructive as they devoured everything put in front of them. It was clear they hadn’t seen a decent meal in a while.
Their players seemed fixated with getting their hands on Levi’s jeans and ladies tights which, apparently, were worth a fortune on the black market back in Bucharest. There was even the suggestion that a few of their players were seeking asylum in Dublin but they were being closely monitored from within the travelling party and all were escorted back to the airport the following morning.
When the inevitable revolution and overthrowing of Ceausescu came three years later, a number of leading figures in Romanian rugby, including the multi-capped back rower and captain Florica Murariu, lost their lives. He died on Christmas Day 1985.
Rugby in Romania was put on the back foot in the years after the revolution and has only started to sprout some green shoots in recent times with a growing number of players now earning a living in the lower professional leagues in France.
We saw evidence of that revival against the French on Wednesday night at London’s Olympic Stadium with the Romanian pack rolling back the years by taking the fight to the French. Despite a highly creditable performance, a historic ninth victory over France was never going to happen.
Now tasked with a cruel four-day turnaround, the odds will be stacked even higher when they meet Ireland tomorrow but you can be sure that the pride starting to ripple through Romanian rugby once again will guarantee the Irish players know they were in one hell of a battle come Monday morning.
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