I’ve been planning this post for over a week but deliberately held off writing it while I waited for a resolution to this to discuss in full. However, the entire process appears to be dragging on indefinitely and I could not hold off writing this any longer.
As a fan who has pride in the values of rugby, the whole mess between Spain and Rugby Europe these last few weeks has been a shock to the system. With Georgia already qualified for the 2019 World Cup courtesy of finishing 3rd in the pool in 2015, the final European automatic qualifying spot for 2019 would go to whoever won the 2018 Rugby Europe Championship (or whoever came second if Georgia won). So often it would be expected that Romania would take the final spot, but their loss to Spain in Round 2 meant that Spain went into the final round of matches needing a win against Belgium – who had 1 win and 3 losses to their name – in order to take the final qualification spot, which would consign Romania to a play-off against first Portugal and then Samoa.
The game ended 18-10 in favour of the Belgians and all hell broke loose. The referee had to be escorted off the field at full time as a number of Spanish players surrounded the referee in outrage of his performance. Was this win due to biased refereeing? I wasn’t there so can only go on the word of people who were there, but Spain had a poor game, however it has also been noted that the referee did have a poor game. While that alone does not imply a bias, what makes this an issue is that both the referee and his touch judges were all Romanian. Considering Romania stood to benefit from the outcome of this match, to have set of Romanian officials is always going to put that seed of doubt in people’s minds. Granted the officials were picked well ahead of the tournament, but it doesn’t look good that Rugby Europe – whose president is Romanian – chose not to change the officials when requested by the Spanish Rugby Federation, despite South African Marius van der Westhuizen being removed from running touch during Ireland’s Grand Slam victory over England on the same weekend for a perceived conflict of interests having spent time with the England camp in the build-up. It’s going to be all-but impossible to prove something untoward happened here, but it certainly leaves a nasty taste in my mouth.
The story has since taken another turn as Romania, Spain and Belgium have all been accused of fielding ineligible players during the tournament, which could lead to all 3 countries being disqualified from World Cup qualification – as happened recently to Tahiti. If this happens, then Russia (who finished 4th) would be the automatic qualifier and Germany (who face relegation from the Championship) would go into the play-off. These questions of eleigibility all centre around a stupid idea of when a player is considered “captured” by a country’s second team. The teams that “capture” players can change by the season but are generally an U20s team or a second team like the England Saxon. Then it also depends on the tournament the player was involved in or the team they were playing against to decide if they are captured. To consider a player captured because they played a couple of games for a U20s team years ago but also not players like Henry Trinder and Mike Haley (who have featured for the England first team in uncapped matches against the Barbarians) is absolutely ridiculous and far too complicated! In my opinion it would be much better for everyone involved if a player was only captured once they have been capped for their country.
With all this going on, European qualification for the World Cup is currently a mess and I think regardless of the results, there will be some who feel the team that qualifies does not deserve their place in the tournament. With World Rugby now involved, I’ll be interested to see the fallout from all this… once we finally get a decision!
Though nothing has been confirmed as of yet, there are rumours that Argentina will relax their eligibility criteria for the national team to allow European-based players to feature for the Pumas. The rumours suggest this may be in place for the Summer Tests but more likely the Rugby Championship.
To me, this is wonderful news, as under the current rules, they are basically limiting themselves to the Jaguares squad and players in a domestic competition that would likely be too large of a step up to international rugby. Picking European-based players would strengthen the national team as players like Facundo Isa, Juan Figallo, Juan Imhoff, Santiago Cordero and Marcelo Bosch could all come back into consideration. Los Pumas have gone backwards since they hammered Ireland in the quarter-finals of the last World Cup. Hopefully this relaxation of the law comes in and we can get back to having a strong competitive Argentina team.
Going 4 the Champions Cup
Possibly the news that excited me most in March was that Channel 4 have bought the rights to show Champions Cup matches for the next 4 seasons. Fans will be able to watch one match from each round of the pool stages, one quarter-final, one semi-final and the final all on free-to-air TV.
This is great news for the sport as it means that top-level club rugby is becoming more accessible to more people and with the World Cup happening next year as well it will only help to grow the fanbase. Granted the Premiership matches on Channel 5 have not been quite up to the standard of BT Sport, but they have been good enough to draw in fans, hopefully having the top teams in European Rugby facing each other will draw the crowds. What is important is they get the right pundits involved, so that we get enthusiasm as well as good explanations from them to entice in new fans. I often find myself thinking the BBC panels during the 6 Nations are a little stale, but if Channel 4 can get pundits like David Flatman on board it will certainly help.
We are entering a golden age of rugby broadcasting, hopefully the amount of free-to-air top flight rugby just continues to grow. Now I just need to hope Gloucester qualify for the top competition…