Few would have expected the match between Spain and Belgium in the Rugby Europe Championship to have been so divisive. Allegations of biased refereeing and ineligible players have led to criticism of World Rugby, the sports governing body, while “the whole integrity of the Rugby World Cup is also at stake” according to BBC Radio 5 Live reporter Chris Jones.
As part of the European phase of qualifying for the Rugby World Cup in Japan next year, the Rugby Europe Championship sees the top six teams on the continent outside those who finished in the top 12 of the previous World Cup in England compete for three spots. The top two qualify automatically, while the third-place team goes into a play-off against another European team. Georgia dominated and did not lose a game, although they had already qualified from their 2015 performances and hence games against them were voided. However, competition for the automatic spot was more complicated and contested mainly between Russia, Spain and Romania. The latter two beat the former and lost to Georgia whilst beating winless Germany and Belgium. In a battle for second spot, Spain beat Romania and 22-10 and hence looked certain to qualify. All they had to do was beat Belgium away in their final game to seal automatic qualification. Given that Belgium had lost every game by at least 40 points so far, aside from beating hapless Germany, a Spanish victory seemed probable. This would seal only Spain’s second ever appearance at the World Cup and their first since 1999. It would also mean that Romania would be forced into a play-off spot against Portugal, and hence their record of competing at every tournament was under jeopardy. That is when the trouble started.
In a torrid game of few chances, with snow beforehand damaging the pitch, Belgium pulled off a historic 18-10 victory. Spain, as one might imagine, were apoplectic. There is a video of the full game on the Rugby Europe website; the livestream conveniently cuts off before full-time. If it had been allowed to run any further, some ugly scenes would have been filmed. The Spanish confronted the referee, feeling that several key decisions went against them unfairly. On the sidelines, “members of the Spanish coaching staff were forced to restrain their players, while the referee had to be escorted off the pitch.” Their disappointment and frustration are understandable, but hardly out of the ordinary: until it was pointed out that the referees were Romanian. It has since been alleged that due to their nationality, they had a vested interest in Spain losing the game so that Romania could automatically qualify for the World Cup. Hard evidence of such conspiring is hard to come by, but it has led to demands for the game to be replayed and for a full investigation by World Rugby into how those referees were chosen. Spain now face Portugal to decide who will represent Europe versus Oceania in a play-off match for the final spot at the world cup. Should they beat their Iberian neighbours, they will face Samoa. It seems highly doubtful that they will win that two-legged affair. Hence, the actions of the Romanian referees have effectively eliminated Spain. This has led to some wider questions about the qualification process. World Rugby has come under fire for their handling of the situation, having seemingly passed on the blame to the runner of the qualification event, Rugby Europe. Chris Jones remarks that “this story has escalated to the point that questions are being asked whether the Rugby Europe Championship itself is fit for purpose,” In a statement released by World Rugby, they have now called for the game between Spain and Belgium to be replayed, throwing into doubt Romania’s qualification. It went on to say that investigation will take place regarding the actions of the players after the final whistle, as will one about the actions of Rugby Europe before the game. To make matters worse, the statement even mentions that there is “new information relating to player eligibility”. According to the National Post, players from Romania, Belgium, and Spain all possibly fielded ineligible players. Allegedly, some players from these sides may have “previously played for national teams that tied them to countries of their birthplace.”
All this has left a sour taste in the mouth of everyone involved. The World Cup is in part about finding out who the best team in the world is, but also to help promote the game of rugby. While in a sense it is remarkable to see the possibly illicit methods some countries will go to for qualifying, it does not help the image of the game. Allegations of biased referees, botched administration, violent players and disputes over nationality all threaten to tarnish the game at just the wrong time.