In the world of test rugby The European Nations Cup (ENC) is regarded as the next level below the 6 Nations International Championship. A promotion relegation system does not exist between these two competitions. Many arguments have been made for the implementation of such a system. A promotion relegation system does exist for all divisions of the ENC.
The title of Cup winner is decided annually although for promotion relegation purposes, the competition is held over two years. At the end of the 2008-10 competition a number of changes was made to the competition. Two Divisions 1 (1A and 1B) were created both to be made up of six teams. As a result there was no relegation between the old Divisions 2A and 2B.
Division 1A Contestants
Romania (Winner 2009-10)
Ukraine (Promoted from the old Division 2A)
What Can We Expect?
At this stage it looks like the title for 2010-11 is going to be slugged out between Romania, Russia and Georgia. All three are heading to the 2011 Rugby World Cup and so the heat is on for them to perform well in what is their main dress rehearsal. Spain and Portugal may defeat one of the three but not all three. The Ukraine will struggle to keep up with the other five teams.
The Romanians came through a tough 2010 with plenty of credit. Firstly, they came out on top of the ENC 1 table after finishing third the season before. That third placing meant they had to go through a long process to win the last spot at the 2011 Rugby World Cup finals. It also meant a change of coach and management at the end of 2009 and the recall of a number of France-based players. This made a world of difference to the team. I’d expect them to do well again but their main struggles will be with Georgia and Russia
The Georgian’s slipped a little, in 2010, from their 2009-10 win in ENC 1. Their form is patchy without their top players. Unavailability, loss of form, injury and some unfortunate suspensions affected the strength of the team except for the two tests in November. Close but convincing wins over Canada and the USA seems to have placed Georgia back somewhere near the top in this competition. They have a tough pack and good defensive, if not imaginative, backs. The Georgians will be difficult to defeat.
The Russians slipped in their last test for 2010. They were crushed 75-3 by Japan a most worrying result. Prior to that they were defeated by the Argentine Jaguars (their ‘B’ side) in two tests in Moscow in October. Prior to that Georgia won convincingly 36-8 on neutral ground in Turkey and Russia managed to only defeat Uruguay at the 2010 Churchill Cup. Despite those losses their is a quiet confidence about the Russian camp. They spent two weeks in New Zealand in January on a training camp which involved two games against country teams. They could surprise.
Portugal has not followed Romania and Georgia in deploying their top players in French clubs. A few have but a number have also returned to play their club rugby in Portugal. The Portuguese have always made a strong showing in this competition without ever winning the top prize. They did play in the 2003 Rugby World Cup Finals but although giving the ‘Top Three’ an occasional scare they haven’t quite made it to the top. I can’t see that changing.
A new coach and a new selection policy saw Spain line up against Canada early last November with a side lacking international rugby experience but full of experience in the French club competitions. The first result was a shock 22-60 loss to the Canadians but the Spanish came back strongly against Namibia two weeks later to win 33-20. Spain’s decision to go the way of the Georgians and select players of Spanish heritage already established in French clubs is interesting and is expected, in Spain anyway, to raise the standard of their first side. Time will tell.
Playing in the top level of the European Nations Cup is not new to the Ukrainians. They had a two year stint in 2004-06 which was most unsuccessful. Since then they have worked their way back to this level but lost their last two games last season both Czechoslovakia and Moldova. Those results were not encouraging. Neither were their two heavy defeats to Romania in their 2011 Rugby World Cup qualifying matches mid-year. Just recently the president of the Ukraine RU resigned, not a good thing to have happened to this newly promoted side. I can’t see them improving on their last time at this level and I fear relegation will face them in two years time.