With single-figure winning margins in each of the three matches from the opening round of the Rugby Europe Championship, the 2019 edition of Europe's second-tier competition promises to be highly competitive.
As we approach the second round stage, three teams are level on four points with only points difference separating defending champions Georgia from fellow round-one winners Belgium and Spain.
After a scrappy 18-9 win over Romania in Cluj, the Lelos' next assignment is on Sunday, in Tbilisi, where they face a Spanish side looking to take down a second RWC 2019 qualifier after kicking off their campaign with a 16-14 victory against Russia.
Saturday's games see Romania up against Germany while Belgium travel to Russia looking to build on their 29-22 win over Germany.
RUGBY EUROPE CHAMPIONSHIP
After 9 years, Florin Surugiu is returning to Botosani, to the stadium where he scored his first try for #RugbyRomania: "It's an incredible feeling. Only good vibes to be back there and to play against @DRVRugby in the #REC2019" #TotiPentruRomania #ROUvGER pic.twitter.com/fz3hZzYoOh— Romanian Rugby Union (@RugbyRomania) February 13, 2019
Romania (18) v Germany (27)
Romania head coach Marius Tincu has made six changes – split evenly between forwards and backs – from the side that lost 18-9 to Georgia last week. Constantin Pristavita, Eugen Capatana and Alexandru Tarus form a new-look front row, while Florin Surugiu Ionut Dumitru and Vladut Popa come into the side at scrum-half, wing and outside centre respectively. Out go cap centurions, Valentin Calafeteanu and Catalin Fercu.
Germany are without record points scorer Raynor Parkinson as they go in search of their first win of the campaign. Hagen Schulte lines up at fly-half instead, having moved from inside centre, while Wynston Cameron-Dow swaps the number 13 jersey for 12. In a further change to the rejigged back line, Vito Lammers fills the vacant outside centre slot and Felix Lammers takes his place on the left wing. In the pack, Emil Rupf, an A team player at English Premiership side Wasps, comes in on the blindside with Jacobus Otto, who scored a brace in Belgium last week, moving to the openside. Julias Nostadt and Kurt Haupt are new additions to the front row.
- The overall head-to-head is 6-4 to Romania - Germany having won the first three matches before World War Two
- It is 81 years since Germany last won in Romania
- Romania have only won once in their last five matches
- Last year's 85-6 win for the Oaks was a record in terms of margin and points scored
- Germany have conceded more than 60 points in each of their last four visits to Romania
- Germany can climb as many as four places if they win by more than 15 points and Belgium fail to win in Russia
- Romania cannot improve their current score or ranking position
- A heavy defeat for Romania would see them slip to 20th, their lowest-ever ranking
Russia (19) v Belgium (23)
Lyn Jones has made five changes to his starting line-up as the Bears attempt to bounce back from their 16-14 loss to Spain in round one. Sale Sharks forwards duo, Valery Morozov and second-row Andrey Ostrikov, have both returned to England for club duty and are replaced by Andrei Polivalov and Andrei Garbuzov. The only other change to the pack comes at blindside, where Anton Sychev steps in for Vitaly Zhivatov. In the backs, Russia field two new wingers in Viktor Kononov and German Davydov. Visaly Artemyev once again captains the side from full-back.
Belgium head coach Ajac Guillaume has opted to make wholesale changes in a bid to test the strength of his squad. Hooker and captain Thomas Dienst and blindside flanker Gillian Benoy, both try-scorers in last week's 29-22 win over Germany, are two of only five players to retain their place for the trip to Sochi. Second-row Sven D'Hooge and fly-half Vincent Hart stay as they are, while Thomas Wallraf shifts from the left wing to the right to accommodate Rayane de Luc, who wins his debut alongside outside centre Louis de Mofferts, another player with a sevens background. Tight-head prop Romain Pinte, aged 27, and full-back Emiel Vermotegets their first starts at this level.
- Russia have won all six previous meetings
- Russia scored a record 48 points to Belgium's seven in last year's fixture
- The average winning margin when Belgium are the home side is nine points
- Belgium have lost their last six away games
- Any form of victory will be enough to move Russia up one place if Romania and Spain don’t win
- Belgium will be the higher-ranked of the two teams if they win by more than 15 points, with a best-ever ranking of 20th possible
Georgia (12) v Spain (20)
Loose forwards Giorgi Javakhia and Grigor Kerdikoshvili are in line to win their first senior international caps for Georgia after being named amongst the replacements for the visit of Spain on Sunday. The Lelos starting line-up shows three changes to the one that won 18-9 in Romania, all of them in the pack. Tight-head Levan Chilachava and second-row Nodar Cheishvili are promoted from the bench, while Giorgi Tkhilaishvili comes into the side at blindside flanker.
Spain make seven changes to the team that defeated Russia 16-14 in Madrid last week. Hooker Stephen Barnes wins his fourth cap at hooker and Manuel Mora is tasked with replacing Josh Peters, so impressive against the Bears, in the second row. The other changes to the pack come in the back row, where Victor Sanchez and Michael Hogg get the nod at openside and number eight. In a backline boasting just 53 caps, there is a change at fly-half with Alvar Gimeno partnering Lucas Rubio at half-back, while Julen Goia and Lucas Levy are new selections on the wing and at full-back respectively.
- Georgia's 18-9 win against Romania in round one was their lowest score in a victory since the Rugby Europe Championship was launched in 2017
- Georgia have not scored 30 points or more in each of their last 10 games
- Georgia lead the overall head-to-head 15-3 with one draw
- Spain last beat the Lelos seven years ago: 25-18 in Madrid
- Spain are bidding to win back-to-back games at the start of the Championship for the second consecutive year
- Spain can match their previous best of 18th place if they win by more than 15 points and other results go their way
- In such a scenario, Georgia would fall three places to 15th
- Georgia cannot improve their current rating or ranking position
RUGBY EUROPE TROPHY
Portugal (28) v Poland (33)
Openside flanker Salavador Vassolo leads Portugal out for the fourth time at this level as Os Lobos belatedly begin their Rugby Europe Trophy campaign. While Portugal have yet to take to the field, the Netherlands and Poland have each played three games and fill the top two positions in the table. Blindside Joao Granate gets his first international start, having made his one and only previous test appearance off the bench against Brazil in June 2017. The Marta brothers, Rodrigo and Manuel, both make the starting line-up for the first time together, at wing and full-back respectively.
The Poland team bears little resemblance to the one beaten 49-0 at home to the Netherlands in their last fixture back in November. Only hooker Grzegorz Buczek, number eight and captain Piotr Zeszutec scrum-half Mateusz Plichta, outside centre Daniel Gdula and wing Grzegorz Szczepanski survive the cut.
- Portugal won last year's fixture in Lodz 27-25
- In their last two games, Poland kept Lithuania scoreless (33-0) but were then nilled themselves in a 49-0 loss to the Netherlands
- Portugal lead the overall head-to-head 6-3
- Poland's last win was 6-4 in Lisbon in 1983
- With only a third of a rating point on offer at best, Portugal cannot improve their rating or ranking position
- A big win for Poland would see them climb five places and become the higher-ranked of the two teams
The World Rugby Rankings update every Monday at 12:00 GMT.
Main photo: Sportkipik.be
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