Romania against Scotland is one of those classic World Cup matchups; the two teams have faced each other on numerous occasions in rugby’s showcase tournament. This year will be the fourth time they have shared a pool. It is a World Cup clash that Gregor Townsend will be very familiar with, being the attack coach when the two sides last played in New Zealand back in 2011.
The Romania side that took to the pitch 12 years ago contained many of the country’s greatest ever players, a team so strong that Florin Vlaicu – who is now their leading points scorer and most capped player – was left on the bench until deep into the second half. It was a combination of great kicking and Romanian forward dominance that saw them muscle into the lead with less than 15 minutes remaining, only to lose to a late try by Simon Danielli.
Since then, the Oaks have had mixed fortunes. Their highlights of the 2010s include a strong showing in 2015 that saw them beat Canada and really push Italy, as well as a first-place finish in the 2017 Rugby Europe Championship, but they missed out on a chance to play in Japan due to the mess that was European Qualifying for 2019. They were one of three teams to field ineligible players over the course of that year’s championship, and that cost them their World Cup.
It is an odd twist of fate that the man to coach the team back to this year’s World Cup was none other than the Scotland head coach in 2011, Andy Robinson. And although he is no longer with the team, another ex-Scotland boss will be: Vern Cotter, who led Scotland in the 2015 tournament, has joined Romania in an advisory position.
Romania qualified for the 2023 RWC off the back of a very strong forward pack, one able to match Georgia’s scrum and suppress the Portuguese backs. Their maul especially was an incredibly potent weapon during the 2021 Rugby Europe Championship that saw them nab the Europe 2 spot off a disqualified Spain.
Since then, however, things have not gone to plan for them.
Andy Robinson resigned in December of 2022 after the team only managed two wins all year, and 2023 has seen them post big losses against Portugal, USA, Italy, and twice against Georgia. Their last two fixtures – away against Georgia and Italy – make for especially harrowing watches for Romanian fans, the Oaks losing both games by 50 points.
The Italy match shows a great blueprint for how Scotland might approach the Romania game, with the Azzurri exposing a swathe of weaknesses to target, as well as a couple of areas to be wary of.
It was from open play that the Oaks looked most vulnerable, their narrow defence unable to live with Italy’s habit of playing wide-to-wide off quick ball. Almost every time the ball went wide, an Italian back went through.
By the end of the match, even the props were making line breaks.
When Italy kept things tight they won almost every collision, when the ball was spread out the Romanian defence was caught narrow, and after any line break was made, the defending players were very slow to get back onside.
One interesting tactic that Italy used to great success was an inside offload from the second receiver. Romania’s habit of falling asleep once the ball had gone outside them saw scrum-half Alessandro Garbisi sneak through for a break a few times.
It is important to note that despite the impressive scoreline Italy managed to post, they were far from perfect in attack. Well over a dozen handling errors scuppered a few nailed-on tries. A more clinical team with a more accurate kicker could easily have hit 80 points in that match.
Romania’s set piece was a real strength though. A very reliable lineout and their patient attacking maul provided the visitors their only points in San Benedetto del Tronto, thanks to a penalty try at the end of the first half. It continued to be an effective weapon for them throughout the match, making ground every time it was deployed. It was just as useful on defence, where even with a lock red carded for most of the game they kept the Italian immobile off lineout maul. Romania were, however, very reluctant to send up jumpers on opposition ball, and Italy were more than happy to use that fact to launch first-phase strike moves off the top of the lineout.
Their scrum was a more mixed bag. The first-choice front row was able to match their Italian opposition, holding firm and steady. But, as the replacements took to the field in the second half they began to retreat at a steady pace. Despite this, they did for the most part remain legal, and on their own ball were almost always able to retain possession.
But what they did ball-in-hand was somewhat less impressive. It is undeniable that their back three have both talent and ambition. They were willing to attack from everywhere, often making a decent amount of ground. But very few of those attacks achieved much. Most ended with a loose pass or overly optimistic attacking kick finding its way into Italian hands.
Watching the way that Italy took them apart it’s hard to imagine them putting up a real challenge to any of the teams in pool B. And yet, they may well prove to be kingmakers. It is entirely possible that no teams win all four matches, and in that case the pool could be decided by points difference. If that were to happen then racking up the tries against Romania would prove crucial, and there are a fair few Scottish players who will relish the chance to show their skills.
Jack Dempsey’s bulldozing carries can definitely emulate the damage caused by Negri, while George Horne’s attacking instincts and superb support lines are tailor-made for Romania’s defensive weaknesses. And that’s not even mentioning the damage that the likes of Graham, Duhan, or Steyn could do out wide if selected.
It is, however, important not to read too much into warm-up games. Tier two nations often really front up when it gets to full competition. World Cup matches are usually far tighter affairs than games played at other times. Despite that, this is a game that Scotland needs to make a real statement of intent in. It will be both team’s third game of the world cup, Romania’s first two being against Ireland and South Africa. Those two games will set a benchmark to aim for.
Romania might not be the most high-profile opposition that Scotland is set to face this autumn, but that doesn’t make the match any less crucial.