BELGRADE, Oct 1 (Reuters) - Eastern Europe possesses an abundance of raw rugby union talent which could be developed further with the right logistics and coaching, according to former New Zealand All Blacks prop Steve McDowell.
“The recent Black Sea Cup, involving Romania, Georgia and Ukraine, should expand to more eastern European countries because it is a good basis to progress,” McDowell said in an interview with Reuters.
“Georgia have shown they have raised their level and it would have been even better if Russia too had played because they are also a strong team but they weren’t there.”
McDowell, a member of the 1987 World Cup winning side, still cuts an imposing figure.
He is also only two matches away from qualifying for next year’s World Cup in New Zealand after taking over as Romania head coach.
The Romanians, who have qualified for all six World Cups, meet Uruguay in a two-leg playoff in November. McDowell, who previously worked as an assistant coach, is confident they will keep their impressive record.
“I think we have a very good chance because Uruguay can’t match us for size and will have a tough time tackling our big players,” he said.
“There is some very good talent in Romanian rugby but without good coaching, it’s very difficult to develop that talent beyond their raw natural ability.
“It also requires learning from the game’s top-tier nations which offer a different tempo and skill level.”
Rugby in Romania got off to flying start in the 1930s when there were some 80 clubs across the country. But its transition from communism to a market economy left most clubs in financial tatters.
Growing crowds in former provincial strongholds suggest Romania could improve and act as a spur to neighbouring Serbia, where both rugby union and a newly-formed rugby league championship have attracted some investment and interest.
“We have been able to draw as many as 8,000 people for a match played outside Bucharest recently and it shows that fans are interested,” McDowell said.
“Of course, there would be more fans if we played the top teams but I think it would be counterproductive to throw Romania into a competition like the Six Nations, where we would get walloped by teams five or six levels above us.
“Improvement can only come gradually and in that sense you always want to play those one or two brackets above you, to raise your fitness level and ball-handling skills.”
McDowell believes the current New Zealand squad have what it takes to win a second World Cup for the All Blacks, who have consistently failed to deliver despite regularly holding the world number one ranking.
He said he thought previous titles bid had been undermined by the pursuit of lucrative club careers and complacency.
“This squad bears an uncanny resemblance to our own because, like us, they are fit, hungry and battle-hardened after coming from behind to win some tough test matches on foreign soil,” he said.
“New Zealand have struggled in every World Cup since 1987, they always came close but never close enough and one of the reasons was that a lot of players were getting distracted with signing new club contracts during the tournament.
H”The other is that complacency crept in during pool matches against inferior rivals, as if the preliminary stage was a buildup for the World Cup and not the real thing itself.
“You can’t win the tournament with an attitude like that and having your girlfriends around during the World Cup also doesn’t help, it’s six weeks of hard work and you gave to go out there and win every game by the biggest margin you can.”
Editing by John Mehaffey; To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org