Newcastle Falcons have been warned to expect a noisy reception on their first ever visit to Romania on Saturday, where they face Bucharest Wolves in the Amlin Challenge Cup.
The country’s capital was last week deluged by Chelsea and their supporters as football’s Champions League took centre stage and, while the numbers will be smaller this weekend, Romanian national team coach Lynn Howells is adamant the nation’s rugby followers will make a fair old din.
“There won’t be a huge crowd, but they will be very vocal and noisy,” said Howells, the former Edinburgh, Pontypridd, Doncaster and Celtic Warriors boss who has also coached the Welsh national team on a caretaker basis.
“Like most countries football is the big ticket over here, but there is a decent rugby base and they get behind their team.”
As well as spearheading Romania’s quest to qualify for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Howells is leading the Bucharest Wolves side throughout their European campaign, explaining the concept behind the composite outfit.
“The Wolves are made up of the better players playing in Romanian club rugby, all put into one team,” he said, the side having won 12 of their 50 games in Europe’s second-tier competition.
“The idea is that it gives them the best opportunity to show whether or not they are good enough for the Romanian national team, and that is the best way to describe it.
“We selected the Wolves squad around late August, near the end of their club season, based on the form they had shown during that round-robin competition.” Switching the January tie from Romania to Tyneside, and vice-versa for this week, Howells added: “The club season over here runs during the summer because the winters are so harsh, so the two games have been flipped round due to the weather.
“The club scene is actually quite widespread throughout Romania, rather than being centred around Bucharest, and I would say the level of rugby is probably the bottom end of the English Championship.
“The teams who seem to be playing the best at the moment are in the north of the country, rather than the capital, and it is a fair spread of players which doesn’t seem to be focused on one club. Obviously the top three or four teams provide the majority, but there is no one side with a huge percentage.”
Unable to work with his players at all until yesterday, Howells said: “We don’t get a lot of preparation. The guys are not full-time professionals so they do have jobs, but for the purposes of this week they will be in camp with us the whole time.
“It is nothing like the kind of preparation Newcastle will have done – put it that way!”
Enthused by the country’s beauty and appetite for the game, the head coach said: “The past week has been all about Chelsea playing against Steaua Bucharest. I watched it on Romanian TV although I didn’t go, but rugby is still televised here and gets a decent showing in the domestic media.
“Newcastle’s supporters will really enjoy Bucharest, and it is a place that completely took me by surprise.
“When I first arrived my expectations were, and it is an awful thing to say, more about the place being run-down after the Communist era. But Bucharest is a lovely city, and any Newcastle fans fortunate enough to be making the trip over here will absolutely love it.”
Realistic in his hopes for a Wolves side beaten 40-17 at home by Bath last season but defeating French visitors Agen, Howells said: “The one thing they are is physical, and they will give absolutely everything they have got.
“Whether or not that is good enough we will see, but it is not a game I particularly expect to win.
“Our top 12 or so players play in France, so for these guys in behind them it is a big opportunity to show us what they can do at this level.”
Not losing sight of the bigger picture as he strives to improve on Romania’s position of 17th in the International Rugby Board world rankings, and secure World Cup qualification in the process, Howells added: “We are making some decent progress.
“We play Canada, Tonga and Fiji during November, and that is a good programme for us. We went through the Six Nations B competition unbeaten, which counts for World Cup qualification, and we have now put ourselves in a very good position to secure our place for 2015.
“For Romanian rugby that kind of goal is what we are focused on, and just improving wherever we can.”