Now that its sixth participant has been decided following the outcome of the relegation/promotion play-off between Belgium and the Netherlands, Rugby Europe Championship 2021 is set to kick back into life again this weekend after a three-month break.
A thrilling 23-21 win over their lowland neighbours at the end of May has earned the Netherlands the right to play at their highest level in 19 years and also join in the race for qualification to Rugby World Cup 2023.
Their first encounter in the Rugby Europe Championship for nearly two decades could not be any harder – away to the defending champions and current competition leaders Georgia in Telavi, on Saturday 26 June.
🏉🇪🇺 | The Rugby Europe Championship returns! Two big games to get us going this weekend.— Rugby Europe (@rugby_europe) March 2, 2021
🇷🇺v🇷🇴 | @RugbyRussia v @RugbyRomania
🇵🇹v🇬🇪 | @PortugalRugby v @GeorgianRugby
Find out more ⤵️https://t.co/dr9xoRixiu
What is the current state of play?
Only two teams – Georgia and Romania – have played in all four rounds to date, with Portugal, Russia and Spain all joining the Netherlands in playing 'catch-up'.
Georgia hold a large nine-point lead at the top of the table over Romania following four wins from four. The Oaks have won two of their fixtures but Portugal, Russia and Spain behind them all have games in hand.
The remaining fixtures for Rugby Europe Championship 2021 can be found here >>
Main talking points to date
Romania's Florin Vlaicu became only the seventh man in the history of test rugby to score 1,000 points during his side's game against Portugal in Lisbon. The Oaks scored two converted tries in the last seven minutes to win a remarkable game 28-27.
Close scorelines have been a feature of the competition so far, with an average winning margin of just nine points.
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 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.
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.
Photo credit: Dennis van de Sande