Barely a month after the last campaign drew to a familiar conclusion with a win for Georgia, this weekend the Rugby Europe Championship gets a chance to step out of the shadow of the Six Nations.

With no other matches scheduled in the region, all eyes will be on the opening round of Rugby Europe’s premier competition, featuring teams below those in the Six Nations, especially with the added focus that Rugby World Cup qualification brings.

The road to France 2023 begins for four of the competing teams on Saturday, including defending champions Georgia, who will once again start out as favourites to claim the title and take a big step towards their ultimate goal of competing among the world’s best in two years’ time.

What is the Rugby Europe Championship?

The competition has been known by a variety of different names since the International Amateur Rugby Federation (FIRA) was first formed in the 1930s. In the early years, the competition was called the FIRA Nations Cup before morphing into the European Nations Cup Division 1A in 2000. From September 2016, the division was rebranded the Rugby Europe Championship.

It is the top of the Rugby Europe pyramid of men’s international 15s competitions, followed by the Trophy, Conference 1 North and South and Conference 2 North and South.

Who are taking part in 2021?

Defending champions Georgia head the field and are joined by eastern European rivals Russia and Romania. Neighbours Spain and Portugal are the two other confirmed participants in 2021 with the sixth place to be decided in a play-off (played before 13 June between bottom-of-the-table Belgium and the Netherlands, the winner of last year’s Rugby Europe Trophy. The winner of the play-off will then be promoted to the Rugby Europe Championship and take on the rest of the teams on dates to be confirmed.

Who is the dominant force?

Normally Georgia. The Lelos have taken 14 of the titles on offer since 2000, nine of them by way of a ‘Grand Slam’. Georgia have produced a clean sweep of wins in each of the last three seasons and are on a 15-game winning run dating back to an 8-7 defeat at the hands of Romania in March 2017. They have never lost at home since the competition took on its current format.

Romania won the first title of the new millennium and have hoisted the trophy aloft four times since, in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2010 and 2017. Portugal (in 2003) are the only other team to win the title.

What happened in 2020?

Georgia had the title sewn up after round four, back in March 2020. Consecutive wins over Romania (41-13), Spain (23-10), Belgium (78-6) and Portugal (39-24) handed Georgia an unassailable 10-point lead at the top of table before they finally finished the job off 11 months later with a 16-7 win over Russia in Tbilisi. Spain were the runners-up for the second consecutive year ahead of Romania, Portugal, Russia and Belgium. Fifth place was Russia’s lowest finish in 17 years.

Who plays who on the opening weekend?

On 6 March, reigning champions Georgia travel to Lisbon for the first match of their latest title defence against Portugal. The Lelos are on an eight-match winning run against Os Lobos and have not been beaten in Portugal since 2005.

The other opening day fixture sees Russia host Romania in Sochi. Russia won 32-25 in Krasnodar when the sides met back in March, but prior to that defeat the Oaks had only lost once in five previous visits.

Spain sit out the opening weekend and begin their campaign to go one better than last season when they entertain Georgia in Madrid on Sunday, 14 March.

How does Rugby World Cup 2023 qualification work?

Georgia qualified directly for Rugby World Cup 2019 through their third-place pool finish at England 2015. However, they failed to repeat that performance in Japan so  they need to go down the regional qualification route if they are to play at France 2023.

Based on results in the 2021 and 2022 Rugby Europe Championships, the top two teams will qualify for Rugby World Cup 2023, as Europe 1 and 2. The third-placed team will enter the Final Qualification Tournament.

The prize awaiting Europe 1 is a place in Pool C alongside Wales, Australia and Fiji and the Final Qualifier Winner, while Europe 2 will join South Africa, Ireland, Scotland and Asia/Pacific 1 in Pool B.

Read more: The history of opening Rugby World Cup matches >>