There are exciting weekends of rugby and then there is the men’s Rugby Europe Championship weekend that has just gone.
To say the 2024 campaign got going with a flourish would be an understatement as there were four quite brilliant Test matches played.
Netherlands and Spain got things underway with their Pool A clash at the National Rugby Center in Amsterdam on Saturday lunchtime.
A penalty by centre David Weersma gave Netherlands the lead early on before a try by full-back John Bell, converted by stand-off Bautista Guemes, put Spain 7-3 up and then the hosts had a player yellow carded.
By half-time Spain led 20-6, two Guemes penalties and a converted try from winger Martiniano Cian coming for them and a second Weersma penalty for Netherlands.
A try on the hour mark from second-row Dennis van Dijken gave Netherlands hope and when skipper Koen Bloemen went over with four minutes to go, the home crowd were on their feet. Stand-off Willie du Plessis converted, but Spain held on to win 20-18.
Pablo Bouza, the Spain head coach, said: “We scored a couple of good tries in the first half and we were looking good, we then had a few more opportunities to score, but we didn’t and Netherlands came fighting back.”
Netherlands head coach Lyn Jones said: “Before the game we talked about improvement and getting better from last year and we pushed Spain hard.
“We didn’t play well at times and there were a few mistakes, but there is so much good we can take out of this game.”
The Stade Charles Tondreau in Mons then saw one of the most iconic Championship games as hosts Belgium shocked Portugal in Pool B on Saturday evening.
A penalty from Portugal stand-off Hugo Aubry gave them an early lead before Florian Remue, the Belgian centre, missed one of his own.
Belgium stand-off Hugo de Franq then scored a try converted by Remue before a flurry of yellow cards and then a Remue penalty made it 10-3 after 30 minutes.
An Aubry penalty made it 10-6 at the interval and things were set up for a thrilling second period.
And it was thrilling despite no points being scored with Belgium having to hold on while they had a player sin binned and, eventually, get over the line for a famous win which sparked wild celebrations.
Belgium head coach Laurent Dossat said: “It is just incredible, I am so happy for everyone involved.
“The fighting spirit and the mindset of the players was just amazing.”
Portugal head coach Joao Mirra said: “Congratulations to Belgium, this is their time and they should celebrate. For us, it is now a time for action, not words.”
The first match on Sunday saw Germany and Georgia meet in Pool A action at the Paul Greifzu Stadion in Dessau.
In the end, reigning champions Georgia came through 28-17, but Germany can be proud of their efforts.
Indeed, the hosts were leading 10-7 until they suffered a yellow card just before half-time.
Georgia took advantage of the extra man straight away with No.8 Ilia Spanderashvili going over for their second try converted by stand-off Luke Matkava.
That 14-10 lead became 21-10 and then 28-10 by the hour mark, the second of those converted tries coming from winger Mirian Modebadze. The first of the second half tries was from skipper Merab Sharikadze on his 100th cap.
With 15 minutes to go a converted try from Germany full-back Nikolai Klewinghaus gave them hope, but the visitors held on.
Georgia head coach Richard Cockerill said: “It was good to get the win, but there is plenty to improve on. Credit to Germany for the way they played.”
Germany captain Jorn Schroder said: “I am proud of the boys, it was an incredible effort, we must take the positives from this into our next game versus Spain.”
The Narodowy Stadion in Gdynia was the venue on Sunday evening as the action came to an end for round one when Poland played Romania in Pool B.
Romania took an early lead through a driving lineout try before a penalty from Poland stand-off Wojciech Piotrowicz made it 5-3 after 12 minutes.
Just before the end of the first quarter, Alexandru Savin, the loosehead prop, scored Romania’s second try.
Their third try then came in the 33rd minute when, versus the 14 men of Poland as they had a man in the sin bin, winger Tevita Manumua showed quick thinking to go over. Stand-off Tudor Boldor converted for 17-3.
The next points did not come until the 64th minute, Boldor’s penalty making 20-3.
When Romania had a man yellow carded, Poland took advantage in the 72nd minute and replacement Jordan Tebbatt scored a try.
It finished 20-8 and Romania head coach David Gerard: “The conditions were tough and I thought, in general, we were quite poor, but the important thing we take away is the victory.”
Poland captain Piotr Zeszutek said: “I am really proud of what we did and I feel that we can step up and compete in this competition going forward.”
It all continues this coming weekend with three games on Saturday and one on Sunday.
Tickets are on sale for the Rugby Europe Championship Finals in Stade Jean Bouin on 17 March where all eight teams will compete with four games back-to-back.