If the opening matches in Division 1A of the European Nations Cup 2014 proved anything, it’s that the qualification race to Rugby World Cup 2015 will be packed full of twists and turns.
Georgia got their ENC title defence underway with a narrow 17-13 win over newly-promoted Belgium, while Russia had to come from behind to prevail 13-9 over Spain in Sochi.
Portugal suffered the heaviest defeat of the opening round, going down by all of six points as Romania snatched a late 19-13 victory in Lisbon. Errol Brain, the Portugal head coach, has refused to panic, instead promising a slew of close matches as the tournament rumbles to its conclusion in 2014.
Brain’s men were undone by two errors late in the game, having established a 13-12 lead through a try from Clermont Auvergne flanker Julien Bardy. Having regrouped and reviewed their rivals’ opening efforts, Brain is now out to right some wrongs against Georgia in Tbilisi on Saturday.
“There was a real feeling of disappointment,” admitted the former New Zealand Maori representative. “We got ourselves in a position to win the game at 13-12. We had them under pressure and we made two critical mistakes – we got the ball in our 22 and didn’t kick it out and from that situation we missed a tackle and that put us under pressure next to the try-line.
“As I said to the players after the game, we know that this qualification process is going to be a marathon, it’s not going to be a sprint. We’ve got to take the lessons from that game and build on it straight away with Georgia this week, knowing that this process will take two years. With the closeness of the scores in the first round, I don’t think teams will run away with this.”
Brain has found solace in the similarities apparent in Romania and Georgia’s style, allowing Portugal an immediate chance to bury their demons from the opening round and give more than a scare to the defending champions.
“There are areas that Romania are very strong in – their forward play, their scrum, set-piece and their ability to put teams under pressure to create penalties to kick for goal or go to a maul situation. That’s exactly the way Georgia play the game.
“We do take comfort from that, because I do know the areas we need to improve on. The other thing, too, is that after doing a bit of homework, watching the way Georgia played against Belgium and the way Belgium put them under pressure, I’m pretty confident we can do the same and try to convert that into a win, not just a close score.”
Belgium’s debut showing may have raised eyebrows in some quarters, but Brain has been following their progress – including winning the Emirates Airline Cup of Nations in December – for some time and expected them to arrive in the tournament with a bang.
The margins between the Rugby World Cup regulars and their rivals appears to be closing, and teams must fire on all cylinders at every opportunity to stay in the hunt for a coveted place at England 2015.
“I know that all the teams, all six in our division, have all done a lot of work over the last year in preparing for this competition. Belgium came off a good tournament in Dubai and they prepared really well.
“I’ve watched all three games. Spain-Russia, that was a game that could have gone either way. Belgium-Georgia, that was one that Belgium were right in the game until the last part, and we were ahead with four or five minutes to go.
“I wouldn’t say that we should have won, but we were certainly in a position to win the game. It doesn’t surprise me at all that these teams are competitive. It’s good for the competition and shows that the investment, from our point of view with the IRB getting us away to South America in November, has really paid dividends.”
With a daunting trip to the Georgian capital next up, many teams would feel compelled to work out a strategy for containing the Lelos’ monster pack. Brain, like Spain coach Bryce Bevin before him, has promised to put pace on the ball whenever possible though, meaning that there could be quite a spectacle if the weather plays its part in ensuring a dry ball and hard track.
“We’ve got to be aware of the weather conditions in Lisbon, compared to Tbilisi,” Brain said. “They might be a bit different, but certainly if it’s dry we’ll play our typical game. We need to play the game that suits us, which is at high pace and moving the ball in contact. With that comes errors, but we’re aware of that. It’s a high risk, high return game that we have to play to beat teams like Romania and Georgia.”
Brain’s efforts since taking the Portugal job two years ago have been focused solely on securing their return to the Rugby World Cup stage. The tournament left an indelible mark on those players who experienced it back in 2007 and memories of their exploits have been kept alive among the current crop by senior members of the squad keen for another run at it. They could take a big step towards their goal in Tbilisi.
“For me personally, it’s the reason why I took on this job,” Brain said. “Everything has been geared towards this qualifying process. We’re finally here and it’s important that now we have this chance to do it that we achieve it. I know some of my players, who went there in 2007, want to be there again.
“They speak about it all the time. We talk about it, we call it ‘precious moments’. The players will talk about an experience from the World Cup and share it with everyone, not only the young players but also to players who were involved to reinforce how special it is.”