The impression of Romanian rugby has long been one of a once proud nation trapped in a spiral of decline. Long gone are those halcyon days when they sometimes scalped but almost always scared the Five Nations.
France, Wales and Scotland were all beaten in the 1980s, a strong Ireland XV held to a 13-13 draw at Lansdowne Road. Great times that only added to the sense of loss when the Mighty Oaks crumbled post-communism and you could argue that the game there is still in decline now.
Ask their Welsh manager Lynn Howells to rate the standard of a domestic league where two-thirds of his squad plays and he offers a one-word answer. “Blackrock,” he says before adding another comparison of a Welsh Premier League populated by sides like Pontypridd and Ebbw Vale.
There are less professional teams playing in their ‘Superliga’ now — just six in total —than there were when Howells arrived from the valleys to assume the role of national manager, while CSM Baiai Mare lost to Russian opposition in a play-off to make the European Challenge Cup.
It is not just the Russians who are coming. Georgia have long since assumed the role as the region’s great hopes, but Howells paints a far more upbeat picture as he sits in the lobby of the team’s Westminster hotel before tomorrow’s meeting with Ireland.
Neville O’Donoghue and Steve Neville discuss the minnows of the Rugby World Cup.
Romania have always been able to produce grizzled forwards, but players of invention and with the required game awareness have been harder to mine from the game’s heartlands in Bucharest and the western borders.
That is why Howells will place his faith in the Kiwi Michael Wiringi at out-half. He is one of eight changes from the side that faced France on Wednesday.
The 30-year-old Tawera man makes just his second appearance for his adopted country, having been held back for a long time with injuries, but he is still rated as a superior option to the 72-time capped Danut Dumbrava despite that lack of top-class exposure. The Romanian Union has finally latched on to the need to source such talent a tad closer to home than New Zealand and four centres of excellence and development squads have been established while a pair of promising half-backs are to be fast-tracked via a spell in Canterbury.
“The biggest problem in Romania is the clubs are privately owned and if they have a problem in a position, rather than try and develop a youngster to come though and play in that position, they will just go abroad and fetch a player,” says Howells.
“There is a big influence of foreign players from the (Pacific) Islands. Tonga, Fiji and Namibia as well.”
Even so, Romania demonstrated against the French that they are as bothersome as ever up front, claiming eight turnovers to their opponents’s one in that first half, as well as stealing lineouts and negating the French threat out wide.
The loss of Paulica Ion to a yellow card cost them 14 points and they coughed up two annoying late tries but, that aside, their discipline was superb with just nine penalties conceded and Howells is bullish when asked if a time is close when they could conceivably push for entry into the Six Nations.
“We’re probably four or five years (away),” he believes. “In four or five years we’d be okay. There are a group of youngsters coming through now: there are three youngsters that I purposely put in the squad to give them the experience.
“There are probably another eight or nine and I say youngsters because they are backs. The young forwards, we can find them.
“There isn’t a problem there. With the backs I think we could end up in three or four years with a quality that would be able to compete at that level.”
Another credible display against Ireland would do those ambitions no harm.
The target this World Cup is to compete against France and Ireland and to seek one or possibly even two wins against Canada and Italy. Lofty ambitions for a side looking to reconnect with its glorious past.
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.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved