Whilst the Six Nations is undoubtedly the focus of most European rugby fans each year, the Rugby Europe International Championships, which sees Tier 2 and 3 nations go up against each other in various divisions, has always been worth keeping an eye on, and one of the stronger teams in the Championship (the highest of those divisions) is Romania.
The improvement that Stejarii have continually shown is why they are always seen as a team to watch, and it should be mentioned that they have been to every edition of the Rugby World Cup bar one, with them expelled from the 2019 tournament due to an ineligible player being fielded in a game preceding it. They have never got out of their pool, but do have six wins to their name across those previous appearances, with the last of those coming in 2015 when they edged Canada in Leicester.
All things considered, they are not a side that can be taken for granted in any way.
They have experienced a disrupted four-year cycle though when it comes to head coaches, with the long-serving Lynn Howells departing in 2018, former France number 8 Thomas Lièvremont taking charge for a short period after that, and ex-England and Scotland boss Andy Robinson replacing him in 2019 and leaving last December.
The current head coach is Eugen Apjok, who is highly-rated among Romanian rugby fans, having picked up the “Best Rugby Union Coach in Romania” award in 2016, and the fact that he was an assistant with the team in 2015 means that he does deserve a share of the praise for securing that aforementioned win and for playing his part in ensuring that Romania continued to build as a rugby-playing nation.
Stylistically, Apjok has tried to build on the strong foundations laid down by Robinson, with Romania employing a fast brand of rugby that sees them try to get on the front foot as much as possible and prevent their opponents from dominating games.
Their back rowers are arguably the most important players in helping to implement this, with all three responsible for getting on the ball and constantly gaining ground, and the fact that Stejarii are one of the best in Europe (outside of the Six Nations teams) for making clean breaks, offloading and for making metres shows how dangerous they are when they do have the ball in hand.
Robinson’s vision when he took over was to speed their play up, and it is clear when watching them that Apjok has continued to ingrain that mentality into everything that they do.
Robinson’s vision has also helped with the defensive side of things too, in that his tenure saw players start to lie on the ground for less time at the breakdown as their focus instead became on getting back up quickly and taking up positions around the field to stop gaps from opening up.
This is perhaps where they have struggled at times, and Apjok has yet to find a successful solution that makes them virtually impenetrable, with Romania’s forwards still lacking the capability to compete with more skilful packs in some games and often coming out second-best in scrums. As a result, despite their desire being to put pressure on their opponents, it has instead been common to see them on the back foot early once they have lost the ball.
Therefore, for all of their interesting attacking play, the defence will cause them problems at the World Cup and could be what leads to them having another tournament of relative disappointment.
The impact of the back rowers has been mentioned, but the player who will really stand out at the tournament is Gabriel Pop, who is a skilful fly-half and who likes to control games from the middle and continually put the ball and his teammates into the right place at the right time.
He is not just a creator though and is just as capable of finishing moves off himself when needed, and it has been noted by some writers that he can act as an extra winger if his team needs one to ensure that their opportunities are converted. Whilst a lot of Romania’s attacking play is about the power of their stronger forwards, the backs, including Pop, will be just as important if they are to win another match and have a positive time of things in France.
Romania have not been given a kind draw for this year’s World Cup pool stages, with them coming up against Ireland, South Africa, Scotland and Tonga in the so-called Pool of Death. For that reason, progression looks nearly impossible.
However, that doesn’t mean that Stejarii have nothing to play for, because, whilst the games against South Africa, Scotland and Ireland look tough, they could have a chance of beating Tonga if they play well and the Pacific Islanders don’t. If they can secure a win in that game and put on a good show against the other three, then they can definitely leave France with their heads held high.