While Georgia and Romania will use the European Nations Cup Division 1A as vital preparation ahead of Rugby World Cup 2015, for East European rivals Russia the focus is now on rebuilding in time for Japan 2019.
Failure to qualify for this year’s Rugby World Cup has prompted Russia to appoint a new head coach in Alexander Pervukhin, who boasts an impressive CV in club rugby. Under Pervukhin, Krasnoyarsk-based Enisey-STM won six league and four cup titles.
Pervukhin takes over from Frenchman Raphael Saint-André and the 57-year-old will be charged with translating the success he has enjoyed at domestic level onto the international stage. In a previous stint in charge of the national team, between 2003-04, in the wake of James Stofberg's departure, Pervukhin led the side to six wins and four defeats.
While the former centre admits sevens is the priority for Russia in 2015 with the Olympic Games on the horizon, Pervukhin recognises the importance of laying the foundations for a stronger future in 15s.
“I wasn’t surprised we failed to qualify for the World Cup; I knew there wouldn’t be a miracle. Perhaps the coaches made some mistakes in games in the qualifying campaign,” he said.
“We need to build the team during the Rugby Europe Championship so that the gap between Russia and tier two countries like Georgia, Canada and USA becomes smaller.”
Domestic player focus
Pervukhin has kept faith with a lot of tried and trusted players in the forthcoming campaign. His wider 33-man squad is made up entirely of domestic based players, a third of them from his own club. Former captain and second rower Alexander Voytov has stepped down after missing out on the Rugby World Cup, while Sale’s Andrei Ostrokov and former second row partner Kirill Kulemin, now retired, are two other notable absentees.
“Unfortunately we do not have a range of players in order to radically change the squad. Kingsley Jones used a large group of players when he was head coach, I don’t think we missed anyone.
“I still believe though that the standard of players who play in the domestic championship is good enough to take us directly to the next World Cup.”
Russia kick off their Division 1A campaign against Spain in Madrid knowing that, in last year’s fixture, they almost surrendered a 23-3 lead before holding on to win 28-23.
Spain head coach Santiago Santos Munoz has named four uncapped players in his squad, three from France including the Massy prop Fernando Martin Lopez, second row David Gonzales and scrum-half Gregory Maiquez from Bourg en Bresse as well as Spanish-based Bradley Linklatter of Getxo, a New Zealander qualified to play for Spain through residence.
Linklatter, a former Auckland University full-back and fly-half is the second New Zealand-born player to be selected by Santos. Daniel Ross Snee, a former Otago player, made his debut against Chile in 2013.
A clash of styles
Spain's new captain is second row Jesus Recuerda Nunez, who made his international debut against Georgia in 2008. Recuerda, who will win his 31st cap on Saturday, plays for Pays d’Aix Rugby Club in Aix en Provence in France.
Portugal’s match with Romania in Lisbon represents a real clash of styles, according to Oaks defence coach Neil Kelly.
“From watching their (Portugal’s) games against English Universities and Namibia you can see that they are trying to become more physical in their approach, but their natural game is to play expansively and at pace; they are very sevens-orientated. I think they’ll offer a similar challenge to the one Japan presented us with in the autumn,” Kelly said.
“We’ve always beaten them over the last couple of years but it’s never been easy for us because it is a clash of cultures and a clash of styles.”
Looking ahead to England 2015, Kelly says that three-quarters of the squad picks itself.
“For the other 25 percent we’re looking for those players that maintain their form or fitness and those that come into the squad and impress. As a coaching group it also gives us the opportunity to develop the side a little bit without the added pressure of qualifying for the World Cup.
“Our forwards could compete with most packs in tier two and we’d probably trouble the forwards in the lower regions of the tier one nations. Obviously the big challenge for us is trying to get the backs to value the ball the forwards win for them and then make good use for it.”
Tough start for Germany
Newly-promoted Germany couldn’t have asked for a tougher start. They play defending champions Georgia and a number of leading players could be missing due to injury.
Georgia won 77-3 the last time the nations met in Tbilisi in 2010 and were successful in both of the previous encounters.
Dale Garner, of English National League One side Stourbridge, is one of the newcomers set to be blooded by head coach Kobus Potgieter. The 28-year-old hooker was born in northern Germany while his father was stationed there in the army. Garner has attended two training get-togethers and is looking forward to beginning his international career.
“There is a really good feeling around the squad, there is a lot of ambition and we want to do well against these quality sides,” he said.
“There are 10 places between us and Georgia (in the World Rugby Rankings) but that gap can be easily shortened.
“Our core focus is on Georgia and how to counteract their power. We have got a game plan set up; we know what we need to do to stop them playing their game and for us to play our game.”
Georgia, meanwhile, will be missing the familiar figure of Mamuka Gorgodze for the next three weeks after the 57-cap international picked up an injury playing for Toulon against Bayonne in the French Top 14.
Head coach Milton Haig has added two forwards to his squad, loose forward Dimitri Basilaia and prop Karlen Asieshvili, as preparations for RWC 2015 continue in earnest.
“Our 2015 objectives will be to improve our overall style of game we play. This means continuing to improve our skills, execution of skills, our tactical understanding of the game and our ability to make good decisions under pressure. We want to continue our growth in being competitive with tier one international teams and developing our game against quality opposition," Haig said.
"The Rugby Europe Championship 2015 will be an opportunity for Georgian rugby to show how far we have progressed since the last season and it is every person’s responsibility who will be involved, management and players, to make sure that this happens. In 2015, competitions like the Rugby Europe Championship and the Tbilisi Cup are important opportunities for our players to put their 'hand up' and compete for positions in the RWC squad later in the year."
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