Rugby in Romania

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Spectators at IRB Nations Cup 2010 (Bucharest)

World in Union Scroll - Profile

Hary Dumitras - Ex International Captain

(Number 8)

The First Ascent

I am now sitting in our host’s flat in Bucharest, trying to summarise the events of the last 7 days and 700km. We started with our arrival in the small town of Ineu, close to the Hungarian/Romanian border. We had been contacted by an adventure cyclist called Claudiu. He had heard of our journey and wanted to be part of our trip, guiding us through the beautiful mountains of the North, so to avoid the busy European roads that someone with a European map might otherwise use. He wouldn’t have needed a map to devise a route, he knew this country better than anyone, having cycled over 100,000km of Romanian roads in his 12 years of cycling. In total this man had already cycled 135,000km around Europe (mostly mountains too) just for fun. He had to fund all his ventures himself, so between tours would look to pick up work in various ways, mostly teaching English.

He had collected us about 25km away from his house and guided us to his home, via a pub, where he had sank a couple of beers and we got affiliated. He was a very enthusiastic guy and if ever a man loved cycling, this was him. He seemed shy and was in complete awe of our journey, yet when we heard of his travels, it was us that knew we were not cyclists. It was like discussing our tuna, spaghetti and tomato recipe with Raymond Blanc. All of his tours would start from his front door. When he wanted to cycle the French Alps or the Italian Dolomites, he would simply pedal out of his garage on whatever bike he could find and return 50 days later, each tour round 3/4000km.

We arrived at his parent’s home and were fed the most generous of Romanian meals. Their house was decorated with influences from all over the world and the father had even converted his large wooden shed outside into a comfortable area where he could drink and write poetry. Here we spent the remainder of the night drinking beer and chatting about travel and the next 6 days.

Despite going to bed at nearly 2am, Jodie and I emerged around 7:30 to check the final e-mails and get our many jobs done. There is much co-ordination to do on this trip, and it’s very difficult to find any time to write. Much of what has happened will wait until the book. Claudiu’s father brought us breakfast and we fetched the young lad from his bed to join us. He was a little worse for wear and managed to eat only a little before asking nervously if he could have a little more sleep. He had such a polite demeanour that it was impossible not to like this man.

Finally we left the house, it was passed midday and the temperature was now high. We still had plenty of time and so with our guide, we were confident of some fantastic scenery and arriving in Bucharest by Monday night.

We cycled for only a short while before he stopped us at a small pub. I say pub, but really most of these places were small vendors with a fridge and an outdoor table or 2. The beer was very cheap, only about 30 pence for a large bottle. They were nice spots, where locals would sit motionless in the heat and chat to anyone who would stop. Although back at home we would enjoy the occasional glass of wine, or crate of guiness, we didn’t choose to mix drinking with our exercise. Our bikes weigh close to 50kg each, the temperature was in the 90s and we were cycling on hilly terrain. So we would sit and chat with Claudiu as he enjoyed the cheap beer instead. That afternoon, he showed us local water sources where we could refill our bottles, he brought us to a secret thermal pool, and despite some inappropriate roads for our bikes, he took us on our very steep rocky shortcut over a hill to save 30km or so of our travels. After our 12km ascent over surfaces best cycled with mountain bikes, we were pretty tired and hungry. It’s difficult to know if Claudiu was too, he was such a natural cyclist that the 5 beers that afternoon had not slowed his progress, nor dampened his appetite to head straight for more beer on our arrival. So into another pub we sat, instead of making camp and the hours drained until late evening. The pub closed and still no dinner, nor tent spot. We made camp further down the road some time after 2am. With no dinner and not enough mileage on the clock we were determined to make extra effort the following day.

We packed away our gear and cleaned the bikes from yesterday’s off road journey . We weren’t ready until midday again, having not woken until 10am. We set off, only to be stopped 100m down the road at the first pub. We began to feel the heat of the situation, we were at the feet of the Carpathian mountains, our first challenge on the 6 day tour, and we were not making progress. I have no doubt that Claudiu himself could have completed this whole trip in 4 days, but we are a very different kettle of fish and it’s easy to forget that we are not real cyclists. He ordered food and more beer and we sat for over an hour waiting to begin the day. Finally at 1:30pm we were on the road. Those at home may read this and think little of it, but with our routine in camping situations we have normally completed 80%-90% of our daily cycle by this time, it takes away the stress of completion and allows you to ride at a lower intensity and take breaks where necessary. We reaffirmed that our arrival in Bucharest was to be Monday afternoon for the television filming, we simply had to be there, and unacceptable to our hosts to arrive at 2am instead. Once we had reassured ourselves that our itinery was clear we progressed.

A long hot ascent followed, 12km up the hill, summiting after 2 hours of prefuse sweating. With a top speed of 6kph we made the final hairpin, and as promised we were soon freewheeling through the beautiful “Alpine-esque” towns. It was the single best cycling experience of the entire trip. To take in the dynamic hills, the quaint hotels and have a fresh breeze on our face all at once was a new luxury. We knew that without our guide we would not have been on this route and who knows what experiences we may have missed. We glided through 50km of valley only interrupted by the inevitable stops at the small beer houses. At one stop though, we realised again that we would not be near to our destination in time for dark, and we did not want to spend another evening cycling in the dark. The roads were generally quiet, but with heavy bikes, and little vision, it only takes a single pot hole (of which there are plenty) to jeopardise the entire trip. We spoke with Claudiu once more. It was a difficult situation. He was great guy, a fantastic host and a passionate enthusiast. Also he shared an awesome sense of adventure, but our methods were clearly not compatible. We could not ride late into the night with no dinner, our budget did not cover pub food and we didn’t want any accidents. We were looking for early starts, early finishes, on safe roads, with nice views. Poor Claudiu, he had hoped for a new crazy adventure, but all he had found was two tedious English people on a “Saga holiday” bike ride across the world.

Later that afternoon, after spending the majority of his budget on beer and food, he conceded to us that he would need to turn around or risk arriving in Bucharest with nothing. We had seen this happening, but maybe not quite so soon. It was sad to see our friend leave so early, after only one solitary night away from home, but he had many things to think about, and now had a job to find too. We wished each other a safe journey and went our separate ways.

We now had an extra sense of urgency. We were not familiar with the terrain, and we were seriously behind schedule. Worse still, it was late in the day and we were slowly approaching another passage in the hills requiring a 15km climb. We had been told there were places to find camp on the other side of this passage but we simply did not have the hours left in the day to reach there. We made only 5km up the hill before dark and managed to find a flat clearing by a makeshift table by the side of the road. We quickly cooked our pasta and ate. As we had eaten in the dark four wild dogs had alarmed us. We were unsure how to deal with the situation so armed ourselves with a few stones as they approached, sniffing at the remains of previous meals around the area. Jodie tidied all our food remains into a bag which I hang from a tree a short distance down the road. We now had to change our camping mindset to deal with wild animals, bears and wolves were not unheard of in the area. The dogs retreated back up the hill, and we quickly assembled our tent. Nervously we tried to settle after a day of real turmoil.

Our tent lay only 6 feet away from the trees, but safely 10 metres from the road, and on a bank to avoid most of the direct car headlights. After just one minute we lay frozen as the sound of heavy footsteps crushed sticks inches from our tent and bikes. This was something heavy, and after climbing 5km into the hills, it was not a man. Breathing followed, and ours stopped. Surely this could not be a bear? Moments later it had paced around the tent and was rustling on some nearby litter. We lay paralysed as we tried to identify what this could be. I knew not to shine a light and not to make any noise, but we couldn’t stay camped here if it were dangerous. I quietly unzipped my bag, and waited. As a car approached the corner, I opened the inner tent zip and peered under the outer tent cover. I could see a black silhouette moving back towards the rubbish against the faint headlight of the car. It stood and ate again and it looked big, but not huge. Was it a huge dog or was it a bear? It didn’t feel like a dog but when you are put into this situation for the first time rational and logic are not your primary tools. I asked for a small light and would wait for the next car before using it. Only 30 seconds later and another car, I shone the light and it was gone. Perhaps it had been scared off. It didn’t return, but it left us sweaty and out of our comfort zone. When we had set off from the pub at 1:30pm that afternoon with Claudiu we had not prepared ourselves for such an evening. To this day we will only know this animal as the dogbear. It sounded and moved nothing like a dog, but with the wild dogs in the area, perhaps this would be a likely answer.

As expected, we got little sleep that night, and so when 5am arrived, we were up and packed and looking to get over that hill in shortish time. Day 3 of our Romanian transfer was going to have to be a tough one. We had some serious ground to catch up now. We pedalled steadily through the entire day, despite the heat in the afternoon reaching the mid 90s. We had no choice, but to miss our invitation. The hills were relentless and sweltering. We didn’t even have views to consol us as we were pedalling with commercial lorries on the busy European roads, heading for Sibiu. We managed to locate a cheap room in the middle of Sibiu after 135km of hill pedalling. We knew this was still not enough, but we were in danger of pushing ourselves too far, and we hoped to press on the following day. This was not to be. Something broke, and anyone who knows Jodie would rightly assume that it was me. I woke up and felt wrong. My head was not right and my stomach was showing the first signs of dehydration and exhaustion. Progressively through this next day, I had to stop and take a minute to put my head down as tried to work towards the highest mountain pass in Romania. Several motorists stopped and offered lifts; some to the mountain to help with the afternoon journey, others to the doctor if I needed medication. We weren’t ready to throw the towel in, and we continued. When eventually reaching the base of the mountain, we had already covered 85km and I had practically nothing left in the tank, I felt sick with stomach cramps, had lost my appetite and warm water from our bottles was not doing anything to revitalise us. 

We managed only a 10km climb that evening before I collapsed at the firstopportunity and slept as Jodie fixed some dinner and tea. We had no place to camp and no rooms available, so we waited until dark to sleep under the stars on a wooden market stall. By the next morning we realised that things were not looking good, but what choices do you have? You’re trying to cycle 25,000km across all terrain, weathers and conditions, and your body is going to suffer. For two city office workers we would have to adapt fast to harsh situations or fail. Despite the pain, we proceeded early next morning. A further 15km of climbing started painfully and got progressively worse. I had taken a mixture of diarrhoea pills, sickness pills and rehydration sachets. It had given me some relief in the morning, but when taking a second dose late in the morning with some paracetemol , my empty stomach reacted violently. The pain was excruciating. I was floored and I couldn’t take the pain away, I struggled for breath as Jodie looked on helplessly. I just wanted the pain away, and neither of us could do this stuck halfway up a mountain. I managed to empty the cocktail from my stomach by using a technique normally reserved for students on drinking missions. The pain relented enough to sit on the saddle and push for a further hour to the summit. Here I knew that the pedalling for the day was effectively over. I could rest then see how far we could freewheel down the other side.

At the 2,040m peak and after our 24km of uphill hairpins, I took a sugary drink, which unfortunately had the same effect on my stomach as the pills. I had to get myself down and get some rest. We got back on the bikes and drifted down the other side. Such a shame for me as this would have been the greatest enjoyment of the trip, instead all I could think about was the mountain rescue hut situated a few km downhill. We collected some anti-acid pills and this allowed me to carry on for some time. By 4pm Jodie spotted a camping spot a full 40km short of our aim. I couldn’t continue, for the first time in the trip, I really did not want to carry on for this day. I wanted to take a day off, but here was no place to rest properly, we had no money and no food, we knew that respite awaited us in Bucharest, but now 210km away. The roads by this point were pitted like the moon, and were hilly. They bent and wove around a huge lake, and the average speed from here was indeterminable. We knew that if we didn’t act I would deteriorate further, but we would not reach Bucharest without help in one day. The last option was to make for the town of Pitesti and hope for a train.

In torrential rain and thunderstorms the next morning we set off on our 90km journey. Encouraged by the rest at the far end, I managed to keep with Jodie’s gentle pace making and 6 hours later we had negotiated our way to the station. It was all I could but to collapse into the train seat and wait the 90 minutes for the departure. I felt frustrated and disappointed that for a mere further 108km by rail, I had broken our “no unnecessary transport” and failed before even Turkey. As the train finally departed and I watched the perfectly flat landscape roll away to my side, my frustration turned into relief. I had lost all care. I could have arrived one day late and completed the gentle 108km cycle along the rail the following day, but I would have missed the IRB invitation and that was the only reason the targets had been so aggressive. Two hours later and our new host Radu Constantine was there to greet us with his friend.

IRB Nations Cup – Bucharest

I had failed to reach Bucharest in time for 14th June, falling only a few hours short due to ill health, and general weakness of the body. We took the train from Pitesti and finished the final 108km in the comfort of an airconditioned carriage to make our meet in Bucharest.

Awaiting us at Bucharest Nord was our contact Radu Constantine and his Welsh friend Peter. Wherever there is a rugby story, there is a Welshman and I love this because wherever there is a Welshman, there are 100 rugby stories waiting for you. We discussed Peter’s situation immediately, his business in Romania, how we has come to live there, speak the language and everything. His life is a story in itself and is living proof that if you are willing to put throw caution to the wind that anything can happen. The world can be divided into those who will buy a castle, and those who won’t. Peter was a great help by taking care of the bikes for a few days and good company at the rugby too. He knew the history of not only the players on the pitch, but most of the crowd which added to the experience.

Initial contact with Radu Constantine and his wife Anka had been exciting, they had been the first couple to find us and offer an invitation to stay. In other cities it had been rugby clubs responding to our requests to meet. Radu was a huge rugby and cycle fan and had found us through his own curiosity, keeping tabs on rugby news around the world. We are so thankful to him that he did, our stay in Bucharest couldn’t have been scripted any better.

Radu Constantine is not just any rugby fan. He is a television journalist, a national expert on the sport, the Romanian equivalent of Bill McLaren. His knowledge of Romanian rugby is unrivalled, so much so that he has to commentate for more than one television broadcaster. He had represented Romania at U19 level, now coaches at the same level and had worked for the Romanian rugby union for many years. As we sat and ate dinner at their apartment overlooking the park in Colentina (translated as “there in the mud”) we felt privileged to have been found by this couple. Both Radu and Anka spoke great English and between them chipped in with stories of rugby and political history. From our experience in Europe, these topics are not mutually exclusive, the politics of the country has a strong influence on the culture of the people and the way in which sports are played and organised.

The first day and the temperature was scorching, Anka took us into the city and Jodie had her first chance to buy some suitable clothing for hot weather. After shopping we were treated to a private tour of the historical centre by Anka together with indepth explanations of the countries’ history. We started to imagine in the roles were reversed. What could I tell her about London? All I knew is that Big Ben was built by a man who was 4 foot 10, and I’ve since found out that the man on the river tour was lying to me, shame. Maybe I could tell her that the first FA Cup final was played in Battersea park, but that probably interests the average Englishman more than a Romanian rugby girl.

Onto the rugby stadium, and the second round of the IRB Nations Cup 2010. Our security contact Niko, met us at the closed staff entrance and guided us to the seats he had organised for us. Niko worked on rugby security when not coaching youth rugby. I couldn’t help but wonder why he wasn’t still on the pitch. He was a man mountain of a number 8, and a personal friend of practically everyone we met. I think that the security team should have thrown away their “security” shirts and got “Niko” vests instead. For the Napolean Dynamite fans amongst you, our man Niko could have offered Pedro his protection.

The IRB Nations Cup 2010 is an invitation tournament similar in structure to the Churchill Cup in USA/Canada. This year the teams were Romania, Georgia, Scotland A, Italy A, Argentina Jaguars and Namibia. First up was Italy A vs Georgia. Georgia had gained automatic qualification to the 2011 World Cup by finishing 2nd place behind Russia in Europe League 1, forcing third place Romania to now contest a 2 match playoff with Uruguay for the remaining place. As expected their pack displayed some brutal strength with early rolling mauls eating away at Italian territory. However, after a lively opening 10 minutes, and some missed penalty kicks, the Georgians yielded no points, and began to fall behind slowly to the boot of the Italian 10. The Georgians never quite regained their patterns and the Italians completed a professional victory showing the greater ambition with some wide play. (Italy A 21 – 3 Georgia)

We were pleased to see Namibia competing at this tournament. They were led by captain, Jacques Burger, who we had met at Saracens RFC before starting out journey. His signature was already on our scroll, and now he had featured during our journey too. Namibia faced Scotland A, last year’s champions. It was a fantastic spectacle of rugby with both sides using the sunny conditions to keep the ball alive and utilise early phases to release the backs. The scoreline doesn’t fully reflect the entertainment of this encounter, but some fantastic last ditch defense from Namibia saw them cling on to a narrow 23-20 victory. One tackle in particular from our openside friend Jacque was particularly impressive, as a fullback by nature, he put me to shame saving a certain try on the 5 metre line with a minute to spare.

Last up for the day, the hosts Romania took on Argentina Jaguars. The Jaguars are the 3rd team in Argentina, behind Argentina A. This only went to enforce the strength of their rugby. I still believe it is a shame that they couldn’t be included in our 6 Nations competition, it would have added a whole new dimension to the competition. Including Argentina in the new 4-Nations southern hemisphere competition is worrying for any northern hemisphere fan, there is already a distinguishable gap between us and the top 3, I hope this doesn’t become the top 4 by 2015.

The Romanian/Argentina clash was another lively encounter and skill levels were well matched. However, the Romanian National team edged the physical contest and soon starting dominating territory and possession. Some key individuals shone through and lifted Romania above and beyond the Jaguars. Ovidiu Tonita with some crashing runs from back row and Catalin Fercu on the wing sparked excitement with each possession. Catalin in particular displayed genuine international class, he looked dangerous, had genuine pace and balance and a great mind for running angles. It was a pleasure to witness the host’s victory on our first full day, and topped with an interview for Radu’s sports channel, we had it all.

Our week in Bucharest was spent investigating the Pakistan Visa situation, needlessly visiting the Pakistan embassy (twice), guesting on a rugby show with Sport FM, Total Rugby in UK, giving interviews to local press and enjoying the company of our great hosts.

Radu produced a news feature on us for DigiSport during the week, this was broadcast live during the half time interval of Scotland v Argentina on Saturday night. Before we knew it, it was Sunday and we had become far too comfortable with our situation. Anka had cooked us traditional Romanian food at every opportunity, provided us with more first aid for the journey ahead, and the pair had taken us everywhere. We couldn’t imagine being back on the road, in fact the idea of fending for ourselves was once again quite daunting.

On our penultimate day we were invited down to the stadium by Chris Thau from the IRB who wanted to write an article on us for the IRB website (http://www.irb.com/nationscup/news/newsid=2039145.html#rugby+world+cup+on+your+bike)

We met with Beth Coulter, the IRB Nations Cup organiser and the president of Romanian rugby Alin Petrarche, took some photos to help with our promotion and discussed the role that tournaments like the IRB Nations Cup have on public interest, and of the standards of the national sides. Beth Coulter is an Irish lady with a first class pedigree in tournament organisation. She had made a name for herself in the rugby world by running the Hong Kong 7s for many years before joining the IRB. We hope that we will get the chance to chat with Beth again at some point.

Sunday was our last day in Bucharest, and with it, the final round of the tournament. As the contest between Namibia and Georgia commenced, we instead chose to accompany Radu to a meeting at the sports centre next door. In 1960, 50 years ago, Romania had defeated France for the first time. This meeting was a reunion for some of the surviving players from this match. I was sat in the circle of tables next to the lively scrum half and opposite the full back. It was a great privilege to be amongst such men, and despite not understanding a word, we were able to show our appreciation for each player as he received an honorary tie of the Romanian Rugby Union. Even greater honour was being presented with one of these ties myself in the stands after the meeting.

We departed the meeting and sat for the second half of the Namibia match. They were trailing 13-0 as we sat down but fought back strongly with their effective running from deep and high tempo approach. The Georgian’s discipline failed and at one point had 3 players sitting side by side in the bin. The pressure told and the Namibian’s converted into points, edging the encounter 21-16, winning the tournament at the first attempt. The Namibian style and ambition had proven popular with the Bucharest crowd, fans of rugby are always pleased to see the beautiful side of the game triumph, no matter the teams.

The wooden spoon game was next contested surprisingly between Scotland A and Argentina Jaguars. Prior to the tournament, this match had been prematurely billed as the tournament decider, hence had been scheduled as the final fixture. Following two defeats apiece, the fixture had been moved, allowing Romania to compete for possible Nations Cup victory in the final match. Namibia had scuppered these plans but a record second place finish was available and would be eagerly contested by the hosts.

Argentina Jaguars forced the tempo and the Scottish were unable to match it. Irrespective of the scoreline, you will not see an Argentinian outfit play with less than 100% commitment. They lacked the physical attributes of the tall Scottish backs but were nimble, quick and strong. Their backs were not intimidated and wave after wave of testing the Scottish defence paid dividends, running in numerous tries. The Argentinians took apart their opposition and avoided the wooden spoon with a 33-13 victory.

Last up, and the stadium was full to witness Romania persist with their new attacking style of rugby and contest the runners up position. They were not disappointed. Again, the Romanians threw away the shackles of a traditional “pack” dominated approach, and utilised the skills of the young creative backline. Once more, the talents of Catalin Fercu were on display as he cut through the Italian defence, bouncing off tackles and offloading at pace to create the first Romanian try. This set the tone for the match and the Italians followed suit displaying attacking rugby of their own. For 70 minutes the teams were equal, exchanging penalty kicks when the opportunities presented, but never losing their drive for the match winning try. This came in the last 10 minutes from the hosts after a moment of hesitation from the Italians on the blind side. A simple fumble and again the star man Catalin was there to pounce on the mistake. From 40 metres he was too quick for his opposition, kicking, collecting, and finishing a quality try in the corner putting the Romanians over a score ahead. Despite a late Italian onslaught and penalty kick they held on to a well deserved victory winning 27-22 and finishing in second place for the first time. We hadn’t been in Bucharest for the first match against winners Namibia but we know that they had been leading this match before a Namibian try in the final phase of the match had snatched victory 21-17. Had it not been for this final minute, Romania would have won the tournament.

I hate clichés, especially in sport. They have no meaning to me, but I can’t sum up this tournament without saying that rugby was the winner. I can concentrate on our experience in Romania now and leave you with Chris Thau’s comments on the IRB website, there’s nothing further I can add. http://www.irb.com/nationscup/news/newsid=2039043.html#romania+reap+reward+high+performance+drive

We were very sad to leave Radu and Anka (and Max the dog) behind. We had lived with our new friends for one whole week. We know already that we will not deliberately spend this long at any place on our journey. It would take years to cross the planet in this manner, but we had needed time to recover, keep the media interest alive, and to witness the most important rugby opportunities presented to us in Europe.

So a huge thanks to our new friends in Bucharest, and we look forward to seeing you guys in Melbourne!
 

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