When France hosted Rugby World Cup 2007 the impact was felt across the border in Belgium, where playing numbers increased by 11.8 per cent in the year following the tournament.
It should come as little surprise, therefore, that Belgium Rugby is keen to take full advantage of the quadrennial showpiece’s return to western Europe in 2023.
“For us it's crucial because it is next door,” Belgium Rugby President Salvatore Zandona told World Rugby.
“In terms of helping us grow the game, it's absolutely [fantastic]. The last time that we had a big jump in numbers of players was in 2007.”
‘Front window of the shop’
Zandona has sat on the Belgium Rugby board since 2017 and states that the union’s objectives are to compete consistently — in men’s 15s and women’s sevens — at a good level, while continuing stable growth and ensuring the federation is sustainable.
Consequently, he is keen to build solid foundations on which a prosperous rugby nation can continue to be built.
However, Zandona admits that performances on the pitch remain the “front window of the shop” and as such there is a desire to do more than profit from France 2023 by proxy. Ambition in Belgium extends to qualifying for Rugby World Cup.
Technical director Frédéric Cocqu, who was appointed last August, has set his staff the challenge of guiding Belgium’s men to the game’s showpiece tournament for the first time.
"For the moment I think it is a smart objective,” Cocqu added. “Of course, ambitious, but also we have many, many things to do better to reach this target.”
The first task on the potential road to RWC 2023 is securing Belgium’s place in the Rugby Europe Championship 2021-22, which will double as the continent’s qualification pathway.
Belgium currently sit fifth in the six-team Rugby Europe Championship 2020 table, with the rearranged final round of the tournament scheduled to be played on 7 February.
Ahead of those matches three teams, Belgium, Romania and Russia can all finish bottom. The nation that does so will then face a relegation play-off against the Netherlands, who won the Rugby Europe Trophy 2020.
Cocqu’s side travel to Craiova next month to face bottom-placed Romania knowing victory would preserve their place in the Championship. Belgium, though, have lost each of the teams’ eight meetings, dating back to 1957.
Should Belgium lose once more in Romania, then a bonus point would be enough to spare them a date with the Netherlands should Russia return home pointless from Georgia. Both Cocqu and Zandona acknowledge it is “dangerous” to play for a point in such circumstances.
“For the moment, the only aim and the only objective is to beat Romania,” Cocqu said.
Doing so in a normal season would be difficult enough, as has been proved in the 64-year history of the fixture, but the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has complicated matters yet further.
Domestic competition in Belgium has been suspended since mid-October, while Cocqu has only been able to hold one training camp since taking the job, providing him with a total of two-and-a-half days of contact time with his players.
He expects to be able to call on the services of the France and Spain-based players in his squad in Craiova — only nine of the 34 players called up by Cocqu in September play domestically — but will be without Craig Dowsett and Ervin Muric.
The two wingers play in England, for Blackheath and Hartpury respectively, and it was felt it would be too great a risk for both them and the squad to include them.
Furthermore, the bulk of the squad is either semi-professional or amateur, making quarantine arrangements complicated for players who can ill afford to take time off work.
“It's not only for one match, is the problem, because we wish and we hope that we can beat Romania. But, if we lose, two weeks after we must play the play-off,” Cocqu said.
“Of course, they are involved in the project but six or seven weeks without working, it is not possible for them and for the other players.
“Then it's a big, big challenge in this specific time.”
Fortunately for Cocqu, he knows a number of the players well having worked as the squad’s backs coach more than a decade ago, under Richard McClintock. He is also scrum-half Tom Cocqu’s father.
Another player who has worked with Cocqu senior previously is the Black Devils’ all-time leading points scorer, Alan Williams.
Williams currently plays for RC Soignies in Belgium’s top flight having returned home in 2017, following more than a decade in France.
He has recently split his free time between working out in the gym and going for runs, but believes the team has a chance to do something special in Romania.
“We have already beaten Portugal. Now, we've beaten Russia, and you need to win against big teams to progress and to go up a level,” Williams said.
“We are going to Romania to try and win. Romania haven't had a really good Championship because otherwise they wouldn't be where they are.
“So, it might be the biggest opportunity we've ever had to to beat Romania.”