Monday 5 December 2016

Rugby team tainted by a brutal dictator

Romania - next up for Ireland in the World Cup - has a tragic history to live down

Graham Clifford

Published 27/09/2015 | 02:30

Heave: The team from Eastern Europe reached its zenith in the 1980s
Heave: The team from Eastern Europe reached its zenith in the 1980s

As green-clad supporters make their way to Wembley tomorrow for Ireland's second World Cup Pool game they will travel much more in expectation than hope. Anything other than a facile bonus point win would be inconceivable.

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True, Japan's shock victory over South Africa last weekend was a wake-up call to the stronger nations in World Rugby but Romania, currently ranked 17th in the world, are expected to offer little more than a spirited, but ultimately weak, challenge to Joe Schmidt's fighting Irish.

At 5,000/1 to collect the Web Ellis trophy Romania join Namibia and Uruguay as the bookmaker's whipping boys.

But turn the clock back three decades and the men from Eastern Europe were considered the most dangerous of entities outside of Rugby's elite - and with good reason.

Brought to the country at the turn of the 20th century by French students in Bucharest, rugby in Romania flourished as the last century progressed - backed whole-heartedly by loathed Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. It would be this close relationship that would ultimately lead to the downfall of Rugby Union in Romania.

Under the watch of a plethora of French school-trained Romanian rugby coaches, the sport grew in popularity from the 1950s to 70s but by the time the national side visited Ireland in October 1980 'the Oaks' had reached the pinnacle of their impressive progression, with more than 12,000 players toiling with 110 clubs back home.

Incredibly, the Romanians felled Munster in Limerick 32-9 on October 4, 1980 and over the next three weeks they would register wins over Ulster and Connacht. Leinster were the only province to defeat the plucky visitors from the east.

And in an uncapped international against Ireland on October 18 at Lansdowne road, Romania fought tooth and nail to register a 13-13 draw with the home nation - talks of Romania becoming the sixth country to compete in an extended five nations gathered pace long before Italy were eventually added to the format in 2000.

There was more evidence too that the men from behind the Iron Curtain deserved their place at the table. In 1984 and 1991 they turned Scotland over and beat the Welsh in 1983 and 1988. Between 1960 and 1990, Romania defeated France eight times, the most famous being in 1990 when the legendary French-based Hari Dumitras led them to a 12-6 victory in Auch, France.

Romania had arrived… but as quickly as they did the nation's rugby federation was decimated when on Christmas Day, 1989 Ceausescu was executed by firing squad after 24 years of brutal leadership.

He'd used the success of Romania's international rugby side as a propaganda tool for his Communist regime celebrating the fact that the men from the east could batter, bruise and beat those from the west at their own game. Sport was one means of global interaction for the isolated nation. Success in football, gymnastics and rugby was seen as a means to demonstrate Romanian culture, and in Ceausescu's eyes, strength and prosperity, to the outside world.

He gave the sport vast financial backing and enlisted many of the nation's top rugby stars amongst the security forces. Some worked as his personal body guards.

So when the nation turned against him rugby union's fate would receive similar treatment.

In all six of the national rugby team lost their lives in the fight to overthrow Ceausescu.

Many, serving in the army or with the despised police force, were killed because of their association with the regime.

Others such as legendary flanker Florica Murariu, an officer in the Romanian army who scored two tries for his country against Scotland at the 1987 World Cup, was shot dead at a roadblock on the same day Ceausescu was killed. He was mistaken for a terrorist by trigger-happy colleagues.

Staggering and wounded, Rugby Union in Romania enjoyed one last major success before it would fall to its knees with a surprise win over Fiji at the 1991 World Cup. But since then it's marched into world rugby's wilderness with the memories of the country's glory years on the field fading with each passing year.

Without state support and hampered by an exodus of players to other European countries, mainly France, the Romanians are struggling to compete with the best.

But when I visited Bucharest this summer I was struck by the amount of posters and hoardings on the streets of the capital urging Romanians to back their boys at World Cup 2015.

One former rugby coach told me: "The game in Romania is on life-support. Once our players would be recognised everywhere they went, now few people can name a single player on the international side. We need one more big win on the main stage to draw people back to the sport. One surprise and we'll be back on the front pages."

Could that win come tomorrow afternoon in Wembley? In a word 'No'… but how different it could have all been had Ceausescu held onto power.

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