If you want to be realistic about it, there is little chance of us beating both France and Ireland in the space of five days
Lynn Howells has never sidestepped a challenge in a lifetime of rugby, but even he admits that playing this week against France and Ireland - five days apart - could be a bridge too far for his Romanian side.
Especially when you consider it will be the first time his side has played against a Tier 1 nation since the last World Cup in New Zealand four years ago. There was a time when Romania were a match for any of the teams in the Six Nations, but now they are very much among the ‘also-rans’, trapped in a rugby twilight zone.
Go back 35 years and you would find the Romanians drawing with a full strength Irish XV at Lansdowne Road in 1980 (13-13), beating the French 15-0 the next month and Italy 35-9 (12 April, 1981) five months later. They were pipped by the Scots (12-6), at Murrayfield (in September, ‘81) and then went down 14-6 at home to New Zealand (24 October, 1981).
They beat Jean-Pierre Rives’ full French side 13-9 in Bucharest (31 October, 1982) and then beat the Italians again 13-6 in Buzau (10 April, 1983). But they saved their best for Wales, who they beat out of sight 24-6 in Bucharest (12 November, 1983) and then accounted for the Grand Slam Scots, 28-22, (12 May, 1984).
They’ve played at every World Cup tournament since its inception in 1987, but now feel as though they have been cut adrift.
It is 10 years since Ireland played Romania in a Test match, 14 years since their last non-World Cup outing against England and eight against the Scots. Their last game against the Welsh was 11 year ago and their biggest, and nearest allies, the French cut them adrift in 2006.
No wonder, then, that Howells feels frustrated. True, there was the overthrow of the Nicolae Ceaucescu communist regime in the late eighties to contend with, but the wily Welshman feels European rugby could be doing much, much more to help the likes of Romania, Georgia and Russia to progress.
He won’t be expecting any favours, though, tomorrow against the French or in the ensuing weeks when his side has to play three of the top six sides in Europe.
“It is a difficult pool for us. You never know what you are going to get against the French, but if you can play against them at the right time, as Tonga did in 2011, you might just get a chance against them,” said Howells, who was the Welsh forwards coach at the 1999 World Cup.
“But if you want to be realistic about it, there is little chance of us beating both France and Ireland in the space of five days. I find that difficult to fathom when we then have a 10-day break before we play another of the Six Nations teams, Italy.
“My biggest fear is that we will be competitive tomorrow (Wednesday) and then might crumble in the second because of the four day gap. Everything is stacked so heavily against us. We will be targeting the Italian and Canadian games to get results and we will try to put in some big performances against France and Ireland. The one good thing for me is that the Romanian players are used to playing against the French players from the Top 14, so they won’t be overawed by them in any way.
“But Ireland are a totally different prospect. Our players won’t be accustomed to playing against the Irish and we will have to play at Wembley Stadium, which will be packed full of Irish fans. Having to play against two of the top teams in the world in such a short space of time is going to make it very difficult for me from a selection point of view, especially as the final two games are the ones we will be targeting. I just hope my players can do themselves justice in those opening two matches.”
While Joe Schmidt’s side warmed up for the World Cup with Wales, the Scots and a trip to Twickenham, Howells took his team to play Yorkshire Carnegie and Edinburgh before playing Tonga.
Therein lies the stark contrast between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in the world of rugby. Where once the dream was of 20 competitive teams hammering it out at the World Cup, Howells believes the gap has increased between the Tier 1 and Tier 2 nations since the last tournament.
“When you look at the recent games in the Rugby Championship and the World Cup warm-up matches played by the likes of England, Wales and Ireland you can see the all-round ability that the top teams have which simply isn’t there in the Tier 2 sides,” admitted Howells. “That is down to funding, conditioning and opportunity. It seems ridiculous and unfair to me that Romania has had to wait four years to have another crack at a Tier 1 nation. We’re fine to make up the numbers, and boost the coffers, at the World Cup, but nobody seems to care about us in between.
“The rich are getting richer and the poor are being left to get even poorer. We need to find a way to bridge the gap between our Six Nations tournament and the real championship. Then, and only then, will the likes of Romania, Russia and Georgia get the chance to truly progress and contest at the higher level.
“As for this Irish side, I’m a big fan of Joe Schmidt and his methods and he has one of the most efficient teams in world rugby. They have stolen a march on many teams with their kicking game, which is superb, and they are incredibly well organised.
“Throw in some seasoned campaigners in the right positions and it is easy to see why Irish fans are getting so excited. Who wouldn’t want to have a spine in their side that comprises Rob Kearney, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Jamie Heaslip, Paul O’Connell and Rory Best.
“Ireland are realistic candidates to win the tournament, although my sneaky favourites are England. They have the players, the strength in depth and, of course, home advantage on their side. You can’t write off New Zealand, but I don’t think they are the team they once were.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved