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Friday, 16 November, 2001, 08:19 GMT
From riches to rags
Dafydd James is tackled by Christian Lupu of Romania
Romania were thrashed by Wales in September
BBC Sport Online's Pranav Soneji charts the decline of Romanian rugby, which once flourished so prosperously during the 1980s.

To a young, enthusiastic and sports-minded Romanian, the choice between a football and a rugby ball is straightforward.

Emulate the likes of Gheorghe Hagi, Gheorghe Popescu and Adrian Illie and play for Europe's biggest football clubs, earn the kind of money that you never actually thought existed and live life in the lap of luxury.

Or play a sport where your country is desperately struggling domestically - as well as internationally - from your own very limited funds, with minimal opportunity to progress to the top echelons of the sport.

No contest. Although the Romanians did not qualify for the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan, a new generation of genuinely talented footballers are likely to uncovered during the campaign for the 2006 Cup in Germany.

Romanian national manager Gheorghe Hagi in action
Gheorghe Hagi: Hero to millions of Romanians
Unfortunately, Romanian rugby cannot boast the same for the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

And according to the president of the Romanian Rugby Union, Dumitru Mihalache, rugby will decay into oblivion if the International Rugby Board (IRB) does not intervene.

"We have to transform the sport and become professional - like football," said Mihalache, who watched Wales thrash his side 81-9 in Cardiff in September.

"We have to ensure that the players have the same chances as their counterparts in football - otherwise we simply cannot challenge.

"We have a huge plan and there is help from the IRB, both financially and in terms of planning. But we have to rebuild from the ground up.

"We would like to play the top-level teams more, because that's the only way to see where we are and how to improve."

It used to be so different. There was a time when Romania were good, very good, in fact. For decades, they competed - and beat - the best.

With eight victories over France and two apiece against Wales and Scotland, the powerful east Europeans were both feared and admired by rugby's more traditional superpowers.

Much of their success during that period can be attributed to former dictator Nicolae Ceauescu, whose totalitarian regime put plenty of focus on sporting endeavour.

It's a hard time but there is light at the end of the tunnel - because we are still playing big countries like Wales and England
Romanian rugby president
Dumitru Mihalache
With 110 clubs and over 12,000 powerful, aggressive and gifted rugby players, the game was thriving.

Top players were directed into the Steaua (Army) and Dynamo (Civil Service) sides who practised six days a week in superb sporting centres. This infrastructure bred a very talented national side.

In 1981, they lost out narrowly to New Zealand 6-14 and as late as 1995 pushed South Africa to a hard fought 21-8 win in Cape Town.

In 1987, at their first World Cup, they defeated Zimbabwe and scored 28 points against the Scots in Pool Three.

Four years earlier at Twickenham, they lost 22-15 to England and won 15-9 against Wales.

Such was their progress that they could easily have joined an expanded Five Nations championship.

But political unrest and the loss of so many of their players to France meant that the development of the sport quickly went backwards.

Dumitru Mihalache, president of the Romanian Rugby Union
Mihalache: Rugby is suffering in Romania
Since then, they have developed into rugby's "whipping-boys", falling 68-22 to Argentina, 60-19 to Scotland and 67-20 to France.

Mihalache acknowledges his country needs regular fixtures against the European giants to improve the ailing health of Romanian rugby - both financially and professionally.

He said: "We need to move up a level. What we need is for the IRB to set up a two-tier Six Nations championship where the bottom team from tier one is relegated and the top from tier two goes up.

"It's a hard time but there is light at the end of the tunnel because we are still playing big countries like Wales and England.

"We have a very passionate rugby public but we feel we have to fight our ground time and again.

"But we don't lose hope, we do our best in an extremely difficult situation."

See also:

19 Sep 01 |  Photo Galleries
Wales rout Romania
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