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From riches to rags

Observations on Romanian rugby

It won’t warrant so much as a footnote on the back pages of Britain’s papers, but qualification for the 2011 Rugby World Cup has reached the halfway mark and Romania are in grave danger of missing out.

The Oaks, as they are affectionately known, have never failed to qualify before, but they require an unlikely series of wins if they are to make the next tournament in New Zealand.

It may seem surprising now, as they scrap with the likes of Georgia and Portugal for crumbs from rugby’s high table, but Romania were once a genuine force in the world game. Introduced to the country at the turn of the 20th century by students returning from Paris, rugby quickly developed a vibrant domestic scene. In 1919, the country took part in its first international.

As in other totalitarian states, sport assumed a symbolic significance in communist Romania as an expression of political and cultural prowess. Under Nicolae Ceausescu, the national side benefited from considerable resources. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Romania racked up wins over France, Wales and Scotland’s 1984 Grand Slam-winning side. In 1981, only two disallowed tries denied them victory over the All Blacks. But a number of players – including Florica Murariu, the captain of the national side – were killed during the uprisings of 1989. In the following years, funding dropped away.

The advent of professionalism in the mid-1990s is often blamed in part for the decline: impoverished Romanian clubs were unable to prevent their brightest talents from disappearing abroad. But player drain need not necessarily weaken a national side: at the 2007 World Cup, Argentina finished third with a squad based mostly in France. More significant are the dwindling player numbers at grass-roots level. Pre-revolution, Romania had more than 12,000 players of all ages. Now, there are just 4,000.

The challenge is to attract young Romanians back to rugby. Radu Constantin, former logistics manager for the Romanian Rugby Federation, is not optimistic. “Unfortunately, coaches don’t have much success bringing schoolkids into the game,” he said. “They prefer to play football or, even worse, stay all day long in front of a computer.”

But Romanian rugby still has its supporters. In 2001, John Broadfoot set up the charity SOS/iRB Kit Aid to collect unwanted rugby kit in the UK and send it to children in eastern Europe. To date, he has handed out £1.5m of kit in 14 countries. Broadfoot believes the push for rugby sevens – the game’s shortened form – to become an Olympic sport may help to revive its fortunes in Romania. “Olympic status would mean more state funding and would help get rugby back into schools.”

But, in the short term, the World Cup remains the goal. As the eyes of the rugby world turn to South Africa for the forthcoming Lions tour, the Oaks await a visit from the lowly Spanish team. The glory days seem a long way off.

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother