Rugby Union: Romania no place for Welsh romantics: World Cup match in Bucharest on Saturday may prove a test in light of past record. Steve Bale reports

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IEUAN EVANS'S Wales team gather in Cardiff today and leave tomorrow for a World Cup game against Romania which, by the very fact that it is being staged, emphasises what happened to Wales during the dog-days of the Eighties and early Nineties.

Saturday's match in Bucharest will be significant in determining who plays where in South Africa next May, and if Wales have learned anything from the dire experiences of the past decade and more it is that no one - and certainly not Romania, Western Samoa or Canada - can be taken for granted.

Indeed the return to the 23 August Stadium, as it was once called, is a poignant reminder of the day Welsh rugby finally realised its post-golden era inadequacy. To be fair, Wales are not alone: as recently as 1991, just before the last World Cup, Scotland lost at this same venue.

How you use salutary defeat is the real test. Scotland went on to the World Cup semi-final but, in any case, they already knew the feeling, their 1984 side having gone down 28-22 in Bucharest less than two months after doing the Grand Slam. For Wales, in contrast, losing to Romania was no isolated distress but turned out to be the prelude for years of embarrassment.

Times have changed. That was Romanian rugby's greatest era and, though they have been going rather well this year, there is little of the foreboding that weighed down the Welsh in 1983. This was only four years after the last of Wales's four consecutive Triple Crowns, but already every shred of the Seventies cock-sureness had disappeared.

Wales picked six new caps, two open sides on the flanks and a front-jumper for the middle of the line-out - the ill-fated, one-cap Terry Shaw - to whom they threw not a single ball. Gheorghe Dumitras's 52 caps were more than the Welsh team put together. 'It wouldn't surprise me at all to see Romania beat a relatively inexperienced Welsh side,' Alun Richards, an international referee who had recently been in Romania, mournfully suggested.

Even allowing for an indelible strain of Welsh pessimism, in those days it was staggering even to contemplate that Wales could be beaten by the likes of Romania. But it was one thing to be beaten, quite another to be hammered by the unthinkable margin of 24-6.

The Welsh forwards were brushed aside by the towering Romanians. Gwyn Evans dropped the first of a barrage of high balls sent up to him at full-back, missed nearly all his kicks at goal, and took an hour to recover. Wales collapsed completely in the final quarter, when Romania scored three of their four tries.

This was hardly what the Wales captain, Eddie Butler, had had in mind even in this distinctly downbeat pre-match assessment: 'The prospect of defeat has been mentioned, and that at least gives us a chance to go out there without having to worry so much about the pressure on us.'

Famous last words. After the match, Butler took such solace from aspects of the Welsh performance that, never mind the scoreline, a new golden era seemed in prospect. 'In 20 minutes the Welsh provided an example of the style of rugby which will revolutionise world rugby,' he said. 'If we can find a forward unit capable of providing good ball for that Welsh back line I'm convinced that the Welsh team can take the rugby of the Eighties by storm.' Er, exactly.

The fundamental problem was that Wales were hopelessly unprepared. The 2 1/2 -hour wait to get through Otopeni airport and the utter drabness of Bucharest, a city turned by Nicolae Ceausescu from Little Paris into a Stalinist monstrosity, were calculated to undermine the fragile Welsh spirit.

As the Welsh are often said not to feel at home anywhere outside Wales, perhaps it was no surprise that the malaise so swiftly spread to them. In 1994, the drabness may not have lifted but the mood certainly has. This Wales team are even staying in a new hotel out of town and are no longer assailed by the introspection and self-doubt which characterised the performance of Butler's team.

However, there is one debilitating drawback to playing on Saturday that Butler never had to face: intense heat. The Romanian rugby federation has put the kick-off back to 4 pm local time as a concession to the Welsh, but the temperature could still climb into the nineties.

This was no problem to England in 1989. It was 90F when they reached their half-century in Bucharest; moreover, the Under-21s had just done the same in 100F. But when the Grand Slam Scots played there 10 years ago it was so hot that their captain, Jim Aitken, was incapable of urging his team on at half-time because his mouth was so dry.

For the record, when the 1983 Welsh team woke up on match day they found snow on the ground. Also for the record, Wales have still to beat Romania in a full international. In fact even in the one non- cap meeting between the countries, at Cardiff Arms Park in 1979, Wales were fortunate to win 13-12.

It is no longer so hard for the Welsh to imagine Romania as rugby bogy-men, not since the Samoans and Canadians have also come to Cardiff and won. But it was still another shattering blow when the Romanians won 15-9 in 1988 and in doing so hastened Jonathan Davies's departure to rugby league.

Seven of the 1988 victors were among the names announced yesterday by the Romanian manager, Theodor Radulescu, for Saturday's match, among them Gheorghe Ion, the hooker who scored the only try. At the time it was fondly imagined Welsh rugby could not sink any lower. It could and did.

But it was the original Romania Test, in Bucharest five years earlier, that had been the watershed and humblingly demonstrated to the great and small of the rugby world that Wales had a distinguished past but no present and not much of a future either. 'My only dangerous opponent was the referee,' scoffed Mircea Paraschiv, Romania's captain then and one of their coaches now. 'He put his finger in my eye.'

ROMANIA (v Wales, Bucharest, Saturday): V Brici (Farul Constanta); N Solomie (Timisoara Univ), N Racean (Cluj Univ), N Fulina (Farul Constanta), L Colceriu (Steaua Bucharest); N Nichitean (Cluj Univ), D Neaga (Dinamo Bucharest); G Leonte (Vienne), G Ion (Dinamo Bucharest), G Vlad (Grivita Bucharest), S Ciorescu (Auch) or T Oroian (Steaua Bucharest), C Cojocariu (Bayonne), C Draguceanu (Steaua Bucharest), T Brinza (Cluj Univ, capt) or Oroian, A Guranescu (Dinamo Bucharest).