In just under three weeks’ time, six proud rugby nations will go hammer and tongs at each other in a European competition that is growing in importance with every passing season. The tournament kicks off on 6 February with three matches over the weekend and it finishes in the middle of March. As usual the team sporting the St George’s Cross on their white shirts will start as favourites. Welcome to the European Nations Cup (ENC).
This is ‘yer other Six Nations’ for want of a better explanation and it mirrors almost exactly the headline act, same dates, same format but very different teams. Georgia have won this thing for the last five years and are the class act in the competition, followed closely by Romania who gave Italy a fright in the recent World Cup and must wonder where they might be now had they, rather than the Azzurri, snaffled the invitation to the Six Nations party back in 2000.
Spain, Russia, Germany and Portugal make up the numbers, or rather more than that if a former Scottish flanker has his way.
There may be a dearth of Scottish coaches in the main event but they proliferate on the undercard, which may be down to former Scotland and Glasgow coach Richie Dixon’s high performance role in several Eastern Europe nations at the behest of World Rugby.
Ian Smith earned 25 caps as a hard-nosed breakaway between 1992-97 and he has recently been appointed interim head coach of Portugal going into the Nations Cup.
He has whistled up his old Gloucester sidekick Don Caskie – the pair coached together at Moseley in England’s Championship – who has taken time off from the day job at Dollar Academy to whip Portugal’s back line into shape.
Their team faces a tough-looking tie against Romania first up where former Edinburgh coach Rob Moffat is in charge of the backs, operating under one of his predecessors at the pro-team, Lynn Howells.
“I asked if the players spoke English and Lynn replied, ‘they speak good English but they probably won’t understand you’, which was funny coming from a Welshman!” says Moffat, laughing.
“I have never really coached outside of Scotland so it is good for me to do this and Romania have some very able players but it is an ageing squad so they need to unearth some young talent. I will only be there for the first couple of games because of my duties at Merchiston.”
Howells/Moffat will go head-to-head against Smith/Caskie on the opening weekend but Romania (17th) are well ahead of Portugal (27th) in World Rugby’s rankings.
Smith isn’t sure how many adult players the country boasts but the answer is not a lot. Rugby is entirely amateur, with the exception of that sevens squad, and it tends to be centred upon a handful of private schools and universities.
“It is tough for us because Portugal is a football country,” says Smith from his base at Lisbon University, “but the first step on the road to recovery is to admit that you have a problem and the Portuguese have now done that.
“I only accepted this challenge because I wanted to work with the Portuguese coaches who are already here, to set up some structures, good behaviour and good appointments and we are putting all of that in place. We don’t want to just come in and then disappear, we want to leave a legacy behind, we want to make things better. Longer term I think Portugal should have a Portuguese coach.”
Smith, inset, has been involved on an ad hoc basis with Georgia first and now Portugal. He was helping with the age-grade teams when Portugal brought in a French coach for the national side. He owes his recent elevation to the newly-appointed president of the Portuguese Rugby Union who has had a clear-out and installed his own men after several years during which “Os Lobos” (The Wolves) were a bit toothless.
Last season Portugal had just one win to their name, with only Germany keeping them off the bottom of the table. The ENC sides have to shuffle the deck every other year thanks to promotion/relegation, while that whole concept simply doesn’t apply to the Six Nations… at least not yet. Does the new Portuguese national coach see it coming?
“From a romantic point of view I think promotion and relegation would be a good idea but as a Scotsman I hope not,” says Smith. “Portugal are a long way off that level, we get just 2,000 fans to a match, but you can imagine what Romania and Georgia are thinking.
“Promotion and relegation to the Six Nations proper would utterly transform the game in those two countries and they have shown in the World Cup that they can be competitive. Italy haven’t really done as well as some people expected them to after all these years in the competition. But from a financial perspective I can’t see it happening. I can’t see thousands of foreign fans making the trip to Tbilisi (Georgia’s capital) and they just don’t have the sponsors and the infrastructure to cope.”
Come Saturday, 6 February when the Calcutta Cup kicks off, spare a thought for the only Scottish head coach to be involved anywhere on the day and cross your fingers that “Os Lobos” have rediscovered their snap and snarl on Smithy’s watch.