Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

‘How it got to this stage is staggering’: Former Belgian coach Simon Leader talks player ineligibility and Belgium rugby

Posted on 24 May 2018 by Danny Ruddock

Rugby Europe needs to be seriously looked at in the wake of the player ineligibility scandal, according to former Belgian assistant coach Simon Leader.

Leader said: “They cleared each and every one of those players to play in the games as they have to do the checks before each game. How it got to this stage is staggering.”

An already confusing qualification stage was eventually decided by lawyers in Dublin last week with Russia qualifying for the World Cup at the expense of Romania and Spain.

Germany take the vacated playoff place and will play Portugal for the right to play Samoa, but Leader doesn’t think the Samoans should be worried.

He said: “If I am honest, I am amazed that Germany will get the chance to playoff for a World Cup place but 100% know the game against Samoa could be embarrassing if they don’t get their best players out of their current dispute with the German Rugby Union.”

That will be music to the ears of Samoan side who could be without up to half the players for the two-legged playoff scheduled for 30 June and 14 July, a month later than previously planned, according to a report on Radio New Zealand.

The biggest problem has been reaching an agreement with Top14 employers.

The whole process started after Spain’s 18-10 loss to Belgium and the performance of Romanian referee Vlad Iordăchescu.

World Rugby’s initial ruling was for the game to be replayed because of apparent – but not actual bias – on the part of the referee.

Again, Rugby Europe came under scrutiny as Spain asked for the referee to be changed a month before it took place.

Leader’s view from the touchline didn’t comply with some of the Spanish and social media outrage.

“On the day, my gut feeling was that the ref was okay and we were the better team,” he said.

“We took our chances and outfought them in every aspect, particularly at scrum time.

“It’s very hard to stay completely impartial as a coach of Belgium and being that emotionally involved, but I thought he was no worse than some of the refereeing we see at this level and certainly the level below.”

He was also keen to point out that Spain missed two kickable penalties and butchered a clear two-on-one in the game.

That said, Leader agrees: “The bigger issue is that the ref was Romanian. He shouldn’t have been anywhere near this game.”

Spain’s fury at the game led to what looks like a scattergun approach to secure what was taken from them, and in the end the approach has bitten them.

The wheels they set in motion because of suspicions over Romanian player Sione Faka’osilea, ended with two Spanish players, Mathieu Belie and Bastien Fuste, shown to be ineligible.

Faka’osilea’s issue was his appearance for the Tonga sevens side, while Belie and Fuste both played for the French U20s – their designated “capture team”.

Belgium for their part, fielded a total of five ineligible players.

The review decided to deduct points for each game in which regulation eight of World Rugby’s laws were breached, resulting in both Romania and Belgium being deducted 30 points (six games) and Spain 40 points (eight games).

“I don’t feel too sorry for them (Spain) to be honest,” Leader admits.

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“Firstly, the way they behaved before, during and after the match was not great at all, and after all, they started this whole eligibility process in the first place.”

The only real winners in this entire mess are Russia who will now join Ireland, Scotland and Japan in Group A.

The width and innovation they have brought to their game should make their games against the free-running Scots and Japanese a spectacle, if nothing else.

In all reality, no matter what team the Samoans put out, it should be comfortably too good for either the Germans or the Portuguese.

Leader has now left the Belgian setup to concentrate on his role with Cambridge Rugby Club, and feels proud of the progress in his four years there.

He said: “Our goal this season was always to stay up without a playoff and we did that and have maintained that status in the Rugby Europe Championship even after this process.”

Romania have appealed the decision, but it is hard to see the decision being reversed. 

What will hopefully happen is a more sensible approach to player eligibility.

It does seem non-sensical that quality players like Bundee Aki and CJ Stander can ply their trade with Ireland, while Belie and Fuste, both with familial connections in Spain, cannot play because of a couple of games they played when they were 19.

But as Leader says, the fact that it reached this stage is staggering and that lies solely at the door of Rugby Europe.