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Relegation-threatened Belgium still focused on Rugby World Cup goal
Belgium are looking forward, not back, as they prepare for their Rugby Europe Championship shootout against the Netherlands on 29 May.
The chance to play at a Rugby World Cup is not lost on Belgium fly-half/full-back Vincent Hart who admits the upcoming game against the Netherlands is “massive” in its importance.
Belgium take on their lowland rivals for the right to compete in this year’s Rugby Europe Championship and therefore join in the Rugby World Cup 2023 qualification process.
The Black Devils find themselves in this position because they finished bottom of the Rugby Europe Championship in 2020 after they were forced to pull out of their decisive game against Romania, in Romania, due to travel restrictions.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands have been waiting patiently for this Rugby Europe Championship play-off to come about having won the division below, the Rugby Europe Trophy, back in 2019-20.
For Belgium, retaining their Championship status is a must as they have lofty ambitions, while it has been 20 years since the Netherlands have played at such a level.
“Obviously, it was disappointing following our win over Russia that we weren’t able to back it up against Romania, and now we have been put in this game against the Netherlands,” said South African-born Hart, who qualifies for the Black Devils through his Belgium-born mother.
“It’s a big game for both of us. I understand it’s probably the biggest game they’ve ever had but, for us, with where we want to be in Europe – we want to be pushing for qualification for the Rugby World Cup, and the Championship is our road to the Rugby World Cup – this is ‘must-win’.”
While Hart means no disrespect to the Netherlands, he says the self-belief is there for Belgium to be pushing the top sides in the Championship rather than merely battling for survival.
“Looking at each team we’ve played against … Okay, Georgia are obviously at a different level but Portugal, we see that as a winnable game, we’ve beaten Spain before; we’ve beaten Russia; Romania, if they have their full squad, is a difficult game. But we do see ourselves being able to compete with Spain, Portugal, Russia and Romania.
“For us, the goal is to reach the World Cup. If it is the next World Cup, great, but if it isn’t we do want to be up in that league and to be putting our name in the hat.
“We kind of understand we have always been near the bottom of that league, but this year and next year we want to be out of that bracket and pushing on for that third or fourth place; we believe we have the capabilities to push for the qualifiers.”
Belgium have star players like Bayonne prop Jean-Baptiste de Clercq available to them for the Rugby Europe Championship shootout.
A weekend training camp in the south of France and the recent one-point win against French Fédérale 1 side, Cognac, have also helped to bring about a positive mindset.
Best foot forward
When Hart re-joins former English club, Cambridge RUFC, in June, from Club de Loulé, in the Algarve, he is optimistic he will still be a Rugby Europe Championship player.
“That was the first time we’ve played together (in the last 14 months), and we got the win and the performance was good,” said the former Edinburgh Academicals player.
“Our forwards really stood out, they dominated and won six or seven scrum penalties which put us on the front foot.
“Our strength does lie in the forwards; we are trying to play a bit more expansively, and we have a few good backs – we have our ex-captain Jens (Torfs), at 12 or 13, who plays Pro D2 – but in these important matches, I think we will look to dominate in the scrum, dominate in the lineouts… dominate up front, and once we have that dominance, then expand and go a bit wider.”
Belgium have a new head coach in Frédéric Cocqu, the father of current international Tom Cocqu, and Hart says the change at the top has also helped reinvigorate the side.
“The old coach did well but I think the new coaches have brought in a new dimension,” he said.
“This Netherlands game is a massive game, really important, but we are going into it confident.”
Read more: The eight places still up for grabs at Rugby World Cup 2023 >>
Photo credit: Laurent Lefebvre