Rugby Europe Championship Preview: Two World Cup Slots On The Line

There’s an opportunity for several European countries to etch themselves into their own personal sporting legend over the next month or so.

The 2023 Rugby World Cup qualification cycle in Europe has already seen the Six Nations participants (England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France and Italy) go through, leaving two more slots open (along with a playoff place against another continent) in the tournament for the rest of Europe. Those spots are decided through a two-year qualification process where Europe’s six other highest-ranked nations compete against one another twice to decide who goes through—known as the Rugby Europe Championship.

Through seven of the 10 games, no country has yet clinched a spot in rugby’s most prestigious event, leaving much to play for as the Championship schedule winds down and the pressure to perform mounts. With critical matches on the slate—all of which can be streamed live on FloRugby—the hunt for rugby glory will only grow stronger as the remaining number of matchdays shrink.

What squads will step forward and get closer to booking their tickets to France next year? Here’s what to expect out of each of the six countries in the hunt for a spot in the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Spain

Current position: First, 9 points (2-0-0)

Cumulative position: Third, 21 points (4-0-3)

Breakdown: Spain has only one World Cup appearance—when Los Leones didn’t get out of the pool stage in 1999—but could be well on its way to being the country’s second if the wins keep coming. Coach Santiago Santos’ men shut out the Dutch (43-0) in their Championship opener, then eked out a 41-37 win against the Russians in Sochi thanks to a dramatic late try in the 84th minute by substitute front-rower Santiago Ovejero. Nevertheless, the Spanish played wonderful rugby throughout the match, collecting 100 passes to the Russians’ 63 and only missing two tackles to the Russians’ 17. Its sloppy 2021 Championship performance (when Spain went 2-0-3) meant that it had to play catch up this year. Now, being just a point off the Romanians for one of the two automatic qualification spots could give Spain the fire to make a push for the top.

Romania

Current position: Second, 8 points (2-0-0)

Cumulative position: Second, 22 points (5-0-2)

Breakdown: Romania have been Rugby World Cup mainstays from the original tournament in 1987 all the way to 2015. The team’s 2019 qualification campaign ended in ignominy when the team fielded an ineligible player in the 2018 Rugby Europe Championship and were stripped of the right to play in Japan in 2019. But, Coach Andy Robinson’s squad hasn’t missed a beat since. Romania beat Russia—the nation that took the Stejarii’s place in the last World Cup—in the first Championship match week, then took care of Portugal after being down nine points in the second half to find itself squarely in the automatic qualification places early on. Spain is lurking just behind them, but as long as Romania keeps winning and maximizing its points throughout the tournament (and beats Spain in a critical match Feb. 27), it should get back to the promised land.

Georgia

Current position: Third, 7 points (1-1-0)

Cumulative position: First, 31 points (6-1-0)

Breakdown: The draw with Portugal this year was a bit surprising, especially considering Georgia easily dispatched their opponents back in the 2021 edition of the tournament. But make no mistake, The Lelos have earned themselves the leeway to have an off day or two. Georgia has the most tries (37) and the biggest point differential (+142) through seven games of any nation competing in the Championship, showing off the scary amounts of power it can generate in a 72-10 demolition of the Netherlands on Saturday. Already near-certain to qualify, if coach Levan Maisashvili’s team gets any sort of points against the Russians on Feb. 27—and Romania beats Spain on the same day—the Georgians will officially clinch a berth to the Rugby World Cup and keep their streak alive or competing in every edition of the competition since 2003.

Portugal

Current position: Fourth, 2 points (0-1-1)

Cumulative position: Fourth, 21 points (3-1-3)

Breakdown: The only nation to prevent a Georgian win in this version of the World Cup qualification cycle, Os Lobos haven’t been able to replicate that form into consistency throughout the cycle—and it may cost them in the end. The team will likely gain ground on Romania and Spain as Portugal plays the lowly Dutch in the same matchweek the other two play each other. Portugal’s losses both this year and last to the Romanians hurt, especially as the defeats came by a combined 11 points. However, the Portuguese can score in bunches—they are tied with Spain for the second-most potent attack in the qualification cycle at 248 points (and just two points off leaders Georgia), but their total of 201 points allowed is the third-worst ahead of basement-dwellers Russia and The Netherlands. If they can clean that up, Portugal could be in a better position to qualify. But getting as close to maximum points as possible against the foes that remain (The Netherlands, Spain and Russia) must be the first priority at all costs.

2022 Netherlands vs Portugal

Russia

Current position: Fifth, 1 point (0-0-2)

Cumulative position: Fifth, 10 points (2-0-5)

Breakdown: The Bears made their second Rugby World Cup last time out thanks to another nation’s misdeeds, but there doesn’t appear to be any sort of saving grace like that this cycle. Plus, Russia needs a lot more help than that anyway, currently sitting 12 points out of the automatic qualification spots with three matches to play. There is talent on coach Dick Muir’s (a former Springbok) roster‌ evidenced best by the nation’s 18-13 win against Romania way back in the first match of the 2021 Championship. But, outside of a win against the Dutch, it hasn’t resulted in many more points. The last-minute defeat to Spain at the weekend likely sealed the door shut for any chance of a late run toward qualification, with an official designation likely to come soon barring future results.

the Netherlands

Current position: Sixth, 0 points (0-0-2)

Cumulative position: Sixth, 0 points (0-0-7)

Breakdown: Oh, Netherlands. It was always going to be an uphill climb for the Dutch to get anywhere near World Cup qualification, but Oranje was probably hoping that the cycle wouldn’t get this bad. Both the lowest-scoring and highest-allowing team in the competition through seven matches, Holland was officially eliminated from World Cup qualification when Georgia laid the hammer down in a blowout loss over the weekend, leaving the squad to simply just play for pride now. Nevertheless, this qualification cycle was a major milestone for the Dutch, who’ve long been considered one of the continent’s top Tier 3 nations but have yet to qualify for the World Cup. There’s still plenty of work to be done for coach Zane Gardiner, though some players apply their trade to fervent rugby nations such as England, France and Spain.

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