While the postponement of the Romania versus Belgium match has deprived the final round of the Rugby Europe Championship 2020 bottom-of-the-table drama, there is still plenty to play for in the two fixtures that do go ahead this weekend.
Spain host neighbours Portugal in Madrid, while Georgia and Russia renew their great rivalry in the other match of Sunday’s double bill in Tbilisi.
The growing strength of rugby in Iberia is reflected in the fact that Portugal and Spain are playing for second place behind Georgia, who hold an unassailable 10-point lead at the top of the table.
Both teams have won two of their four games to boast nine points to date, with Os Lobos sitting in second place thanks to a better points difference (+1 compared to -4).
Should Portugal prevail against Los Leones for the first time since 2012, they will achieve their best finish at this level in 16 years. Spain were runners-up in 2019.
Young winger Raffaele Storti, 21, says Portugal will have to play to their best to get the win.
“They (Spain) have really strong forwards and fast backs. We know they are a well-organised team with a good counter-attack. We will have to play at our finest if we want the victory.
“It's very important for us to win,” he added. “Portugal hasn't been in this position for a long time now. However, our main goal is the qualification for RWC 2023.”
Storti, who scored an incredible nine tries in the World Rugby U20 Trophy 2019, says head coach Patrice Lagisquet, the former France winger, has made a big impact in helping Os Lobos progress.
Portugal will be the higher-ranked of the two nations in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings if they win by more than 15 points.
“Patrice has brought a lot of hope and motivation to our team. With his knowledge and experience, he has really taught us many things on how to improve: our positioning, our technique but also, our mentality.”
Portugal and Spain have been playing each other at test level for 86 years and Storti, who won his third cap in November’s 30-10 win over Brazil, is aware of the history.
“Spain is our neighbour; our countries have a lot of history together and we've played against them many times now. Sure, we have a certain rivalry, but it's a healthy rivalry.”
Autumn Nations Cup was great experience – Jaiani
Georgia wrapped up a sixth Rugby Europe Championship title in seven years back in March on the back of four consecutive wins. Victory over Russia in Tbilisi on Sunday would complete the full set and also extend their unbeaten run against the Bears dating back to the inaugural meeting, some 20 matches ago.
Another incentive is cementing their position as the 12th best team in the world. Defeat to Russia would see them slip three places to 15th.
While Georgia failed to win a game during the Autumn Nations Cup, their improvement as the tournament went on was widely acknowledged.
After losing 40-0 to England, they went down 18-10 to Wales before scoring the try of the tournament in a 23-10 defeat to Ireland thanks to a brilliant run from Giorgi Kveseladze.
A fired-up Fiji proved too strong in the final round in early December but the Lelos showed their mettle again by scoring three tries.
With a number of players who competed in the Autumn Nations Cup unavailable to him, head coach Levan Maisashvili included 10 uncapped players in his extended squad.
However, towering second-row Lasha Jaiani is ready to build on the progress made over November and December.
“Even though we might not have achieved our goal of winning a match during the ANC, we showed that we could progress really quickly,” said Jaiani, who is now playing his club rugby alongside recalled Lelos prop Zurab Zhvania at English Premiership 2019/20 finalists Wasps.
“If you look at the matches going on from England, which we lost by 40 points, we played a really good game defensively against Wales and then went to Ireland, where we scored a really good try and played well defensively again against a side with lots of stars.
“That was a tight game against a very good Irish side, so we came out of those three games with credit. It showed that Georgia is a team that can progress really well if we’re given enough exposure against top tier one sides like England, Wales and Ireland.
“The ANC was just an experiment but if you gave Georgia more games against quality opposition, especially with the young, talented team we currently have, the future would be very good. We would use the chance correctly and that would be good for rugby.
“With teams like Russia and Romania as well, we could see a very quick rise in the development of Eastern European rugby and then you also have Spain and Portugal. If Georgia is doing well against tier one teams, it would give everyone confidence to progress.”