Heading into the final round of pool fixtures in the 2024 Rugby Europe Men’s Championship, Belgium know that victory at home to Poland and a favourable result between Romania and Portugal will guarantee them a top-four finish for the first time at this level.

The Black Devils have never finished higher than fifth in European rugby’s second-tier international competition, which began in 2000 as the European Nations Cup before being rebranded in 2016 as the Rugby Europe Championship.

A win without a bonus point at Stade du Pachy on Saturday will be sufficient for Belgium to qualify for the Cup semi-finals unless Portugal have either won or drawn, while scoring three tries more than the Oaks in their game, which kicks off a few hours earlier in Bucharest. A bonus-point win for Belgium guarantees them a place in the semi-finals if Portugal fail to beat Romania. 

Unbeaten Romania top the standings in Pool B with nine points, Portugal are second with six and Belgium are a couple of points further back in third. Poland prop up the table after two straight defeats.

Belgium’s 10-6 win over Portugal in round one could be pivotal as the head-to-head ruling will be the first criteria used to decide the finishing order if teams are level on points.

While Portugal recovered from one of the biggest shocks in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings powered by Capgemini to beat Poland 54-7 in round two, Belgium fell to a 33-18 defeat at the hands of Romania, meaning there is everything to play for this weekend.

For Laurent Dossat, the Portugal win was a dream start to his reign as Belgium’s head coach but utility back Jordan Gott – who can play 10 and 15 – says credit must also go to his predecessor, Mike Ford, for the foundations that he put in place.

“Mike is an outstanding bloke. Last year I had a few off-the-field issues and he couldn’t have been more supportive, and when I signed for [Cornish] Pirates for this season, he was one of the first to message me,” said Gott, the Belgian-born former England U18 player.

“He stepped up the professionalism within the squad, within the set up and the environment, and I think it was what Belgium really needed. The support staff and the managers have really pushed on from that.”

Professionalism and passion

While Ford has coached at the highest level with giants of the game like England and Ireland before spells with Germany and then Belgium, Dossat comes from more humble stock having previously plied his trade in France’s Nationale 2.

But the former electronics engineer has made a big impression on the Black Devils squad in a short period of time.

“Laurent is a very, very passionate Frenchman, he wears his heart on his sleeve. When he does his team talks you can see he means every word he says,” said Gott.

“He’s very understanding but when things aren’t right he will say, ‘you do that again’. He’s a tough bloke but I am a fan of both.

“I think Belgium has needed both approaches, and that is paying off now.”

Playing at 10, Gott kicked Belgium into an early lead against Romania and was part of the heroic rearguard in the famous win over Portugal at full-back.

One of Belgium’s work-ons this weekend will be discipline, the Black Devils lived up to their name with five yellow cards and a competition-high 30 penalties across the first two rounds.

They have been particularly hard hit at scrum time and the stats suggest Poland’s best approach would be try and take them on in the set-piece.

However, scoring points has been a problem for the visitors – they have managed just 15 so far – and Belgium go into this must-win match as favourites for the first time in this year’s competition.

With a maximum of 0.28 rating points on offer, it is not possible for Belgium to catch Russia above them in the rankings even if they beat Poland by an emphatic scoreline.

Poland will stay in 33rd, still marginally ahead of Zimbabwe, if that scenario unfolds, but stand to gain between two and four places if they pull off a second win in eight matches since they were promoted to this level.

Gérard faces former team

As for the top-of-the-table encounter between Romania and Portugal, the winning team will finish first in Pool B.

Portugal have lost on their last five visits to Romania, dating back to a 22-21 win in Bucharest in March 2009, but they will fancy their chances of turning that record around, especially if leading at the break. Os Lobos have scored two-thirds of their points in the first half of matches across the first two rounds, while not conceding a single point in the second half.

The last three meetings have all been high-scoring affairs with an average match aggregate of 59 points, and with both teams intent on playing attacking rugby judging by the number of line-breaks, offloads and metres run, this could be another.

One advantage Romania have other than home advantage is the fact they are now coached by former Portugal assistant coach, David Gérard, who is yet to lose since taking on the job post- Rugby World Cup 2023.

In terms of the rankings, a win wouldn’t necessarily lead to a rise for either team as the permutations are dependent on the outcome of the first match of the weekend – Georgia v Spain in Tbilisi.

Portugal will leapfrog Georgia and move up to 15th place in victory but only if the Lelos lose at home to Spain for the first time as well.

Os Lobos will close to within one place of their all-time high of 13th if they win by more than 15 points in Bucharest and Georgia slip up.

Romania will replace Spain in 19th if they beat Portugal and Los Leones fail to come away from Tbilisi with a win.

Lelos defend long unbeaten run

As the two unbeaten teams in Pool A, Georgia and Spain have both already qualified for the semi-finals, but the winner of this match will finish top and set up a semi-final against the runner-up from Pool B.

Spain have never beaten the Lelos in Georgia in 12 previous attempts and have found points hard to come by on those trips, averaging just 11.5 points per game. The closest Los Leones have come to victory in Georgia was when they lost 22-20 in 2008.

Georgia, the six-time defending champions, go into the match on the back of an unbeaten 30-match run in the competition, and that’s despite a proliferation of yellow cards going against them in the last two years (16 in 13 matches).

The Lelos last tasted defeat in the Championship on 19 March, 2017, losing 8-7 to Romania in Bucharest, and it would take a huge effort from Spain to derail them.

Neither team can climb the rankings in victory this weekend, however, the Lelos will drop at least two places in defeat, possibly three, depending on the margin and the result of the Romania v Portugal game, while Spain’s position in 19th is under threat from Romania.

Dutch look to double up

The final match of the weekend is between the Netherlands and Germany in Amsterdam on Sunday and is a repeat of last year’s fifth-place play-off, which the Dutch won handsomely, 50-28.

Such clinical finishing has been absent in their first two matches – defeats to Spain and Georgia – with just two tries scored from open play in 19 visits to the opposition 22.

But Lyn Jones’ fast-improving outfit will rate their chances of getting off to a fast start against a winless German team that struggles for territory and possession and has conceded three-quarters of its points in the first quarter of matches.

The Netherlands will climb above Brazil in the rankings with victory, and also Belgium if the Black Devils fail to win and the Dutch beat Germany by more than 15 points.

A lesser margin of victory would be sufficient for the Netherlands to go up to 27th if Belgium lose.

A narrow victory for Germany over the Netherlands would translate into a three-place gain. But if they win by more than 15 points and that margin is matched by Poland in Waterloo, the Black Eagles can climb four places to 28th.