A second-successive triumph for Emerging South Africa, a genuine competitiveness throughout with drama and excitement in equal measures - the 2008 IRB Nations Cup was a tournament that refused to become predictable, even if the final standings suggested otherwise.
After South Africa's Test hopefuls romped through the 2007 tournament, few would have bet against another title for the side now coached by Chester Williams. Yet, despite emerging from the 2008 tournament undefeated, Emerging South Africa did not have it all their own way as the performances of a resurgent Romania and combative Georgia suggested that the gap is slowly being closed between Tier 1 'superpowers' and emerging rugby nations.
Bucharest opened with welcome arms a second staging of the six-nation international tournament, which in 2008 saw Russia and Uruguay take the places of Argentina A and Namibia to join Emerging South Africa, Italy A, Georgia and Romania in the title race.
Hopes were also high in the Romanian capital that their own team could fair better than fourth place in 2007 and as a result a large crowd was in attendance at the Stadionul National Arcul de Triumf for each of the three match days.
The opening matches set the tone for the rest of the tournament, which kicked off in searing heat with the encounter between Italy A and Russia. The Italians, containing a sprinkling of internationals including experienced wing Marko Stanojevic, were many neutrals' favourites to challenge the South Africans and duly mastered the oppressive conditions and an exciting Russia team to score five tries in a 38-15 triumph to get their campaign off to a winning start.
Next was the turn of the defending champions, who were up against Georgia and looking for their fourth straight win in the Nations Cup. On paper it should have been close affair as Emerging South Africa, bristling with Super 14 talent, took on a young Georgian outfit containing a sprinkling of those who had impressed at RWC 2007 in France. Georgia, though, are a rising force on the world stage and are continually proving to be a tough nut to crack as proved the case with Howard Noble's breakaway try early in the second half the vital score in 11-3 victory.
Georgia, inspired by a powerful display from their pack, would have felt aggrieved at not causing an upset as twice they hit the uprights with penalty attempts in a second half that they had the better of on balance. Despite the defeat, the Lelos had certainly put down a marker of their intent to challenge for the title.
The earlier drama had whetted the huge crowd's appetite ahead of Romania's clash against the tournament's new boys Uruguay. The hosts were determined to make a winning start and did just that as Marin Mot's side eased their way into the tournament with a 10-6 victory. It was far from impressive as errors reigned, but there were signs of what was to come later in the tournament with some superb passages of play.
Ashley Johnson on the charge for Emerging South Africa against hosts Romania
Day two was no less dramatic. A four-day hiatus had passed, wounds were licked and all six teams returned to the Arcul de Triumf determined to up the stakes. Georgia and Uruguay opened proceedings and entertained another large crowd with a match of high drama as the European side recorded their first victory of the 2008 tournament, squeezing past Uruguay 20-18. In what was only the third ever fixture between the two nations, Los Teros could have sneaked the victory themselves had Matias Arocena slotted over a penalty with the last kick of the game.
The margin of victory in the second match of the afternoon was even less. Italy A, looking to maintain their excellent start to the tournament, put in a powerful performance against Emerging South Africa, but fell short by a point as the defending champions edged past them 20-19. The champions had led 10-0 at the interval, but Italy A came back strongly and replacement hooker Franco Sbaraglini's late try set up a nervous finish.
Romania then made it three narrow victories in a row on day two, squeezing past European Nations Cup rivals Russia 13-12 to maintain their own title ambitions. In a tense affair before a partisan Bucharest crowd, the odds were stacked against the Russians. However, they produced a much improved performance, one bristling with passion and attacking flair and as a result the scores were locked 6-6 at the interval.
Russia took the lead early in the second half as fly half Alexander Yanyushkin landed two penalties, but it was a converted try 12 minutes from time scored by Florin Teasca that proved to be the eventual difference between two good sides at the final whistle.
The result sparked mass celebrations within the capital. Romania, after fairing indifferently on home soil in 2007, would now face Emerging South Africa in their final match - a winner takes all affair with the defending champions the only other unbeaten side in the tournament.
It was a celebration of hope that Emerging South Africa could be defeated as Romania's Director of Rugby Ellis Meachen was quick to point out at the time.
"I know how good the Emerging Springboks are, with very pacy backs and they are keen to defend the title they won last year. This win against Russia has given us a bit of confidence. We have a young team that's starting to play well under pressure and I hope they will show that against the South Africans," said Meachen.
Uruguay picked up their only win in the IRB Nations Cup 2008 against Russia
The final matchday was to be dramatic. Three teams had a mathematical chance of lifting the title with Italy A still in the frame, but requiring a bonus point win over Georgia and for Romania also to draw with Emerging South Africa to achieve an unlikely, but possible crowning as champions.
Russia and Uruguay, though, got the action under way and the match appeared to be going the way of the improving Russians, until a dramatic final sequence of events that saw victory snatched from their grasp.
Trailing 19-9 with just five minutes to go, all seemed to be lost for Uruguay, but they regrouped for one last assault and, following enormous pressure from their forwards, hit back courtesy of a converted penalty try.
With time up on the clock, the advantage was still 19-16 in Russia's favour, but again the Uruguayans came back and snatched a dramatic 23-19 victory when number 8 Ignacio Conti crashed over for another converted try. The defeat let the Russians stunned, but afterwards even they would acknowledge their part in a truly wonderful match.
Compared to this opening match, Italy A's encounter with Georgia was a tame affair, but the result was no less significant. With an outside chance of lifting the title, the Italians were confident heading into the match, but in the upset of the tournament they were put to the sword by a Georgian side that totally outclassed them, scoring three tries on the way to a 25-3 victory and ultimately second place in the final standings.
Sensing another upset on the cards, the large Romanian crowd were hopeful of their team's chances against an under par Emerging South Africa when the teams emerged for the final match of the tournament and one which would determine the destination of the silverware.
The early signs were good. Propelled into an early 3-0 lead courtesy of the boot of Dan Dumbrava, the Romanians were enjoying the better of the crucial forward exchanges. Yet, showing their ability to perform when under great pressure, the Emerging Springboks weathered the storm, both metaphorically and literally, as the heavens opened in Bucharest, and edged into a 10-6 lead at the break thanks to full back Bjorn Basson's try.
Romania fought back after the break, but the South Africans stretched their advantage to 20-6 through the boot of their captain Morgan Newman and a try by Noble. Second row Florin Corodeanu gave the home side hope with a try, but it was a case of too little too late for the hosts as Emerging South Africa made certain of victory when Jody Jenneker crossed for their third try to secure a second successive IRB Nations Cup title.
11/06/2008 - Italy A 38-15 Russia
11/06/2008 - Emerging South Africa 11-3 Georgia
11/06/2008 - Uruguay 6-10 Romania
15/06/2008 - Georgia 20-18 Uruguay
15/06/2008 - Italy A 19-20 Emerging South Africa
15/06/2008 - Russia 12-13 Romania
20/06/2008 - Russia 19-23 Uruguay
20/06/2008 - Italy A 3-25 Georgia
20/06/2008 - Emerging South Africa 25-13 Romania
This review appears in the IRB World Rugby Yearbook 2009, to purchase a copy of the Yearbook for the reduced online price of £10.99 visit the publishers' website www.visionsp.co.uk.
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