This proud East European nation was on the rise but has fallen away. We all know about Georgia’s production line, but will Moldovan monsters in top leagues remain a rarity?
Could Moldova become rugby’s next forwards factory?
Vadim Cobîlaș remembers the day he brought a ram home. It was a reward for his heroics on the wrestling mat.
The veteran prop grew up in Soroca, a fortified town on the banks of the Dniester river, just a stroll from the Ukrainian border. It was here, as a younger man, that he competed in and won the local Trînta – a beloved wrestling competition used all over Moldova. Cobîlaș remembers how proud his father was that day, how the beast was cooked in the old, familiar style and dished out amongst friends and competitors.
Asked about getting into rugby, Cobîlaș responds: “At the moment there is one rugby team in Soroca, at amateur level. But unfortunately during my childhood there weren’t places to train and play rugby. I finished school and went to the university in Chișinău and there I trained for the first time when I was around 20 years old.”
Cobîlaș is considered a trailblazer. To make it in the pro game, he had to leave Moldova. It is a familiar tale if you speak to those few Moldovans who have risen to the top level. In Cobîlaș’s case, he had to go via VVA Modino (now VVA Saracens), before he was spotted by then-Russia coach Steve Diamond, who took him to Sale, where some former team-mates say he became a legend. Now in Bordeaux, the 37-year-old tighthead has had a fine career.
And he isn’t the only prop to have come out of that thickly-walled border town. In France, the 23-year-old Cristian Ojovan has sprung from his progressively impressive showings at Aurillac to ink a deal with Top 14 giants Clermont. And as it transpires, Cobîlaș played no small part in helping the youngster there.
“I met Cristian in the gym in Soroca,” the elder statesman says. “I saw how he was training and asked if he would like to play rugby. As at that time in Soroca we didn’t have rugby, I told him he needed to go to Chișinău. The Moldovan rugby president at that time, Vasile Revenco, met him and helped with accommodation and transferred him to study in Chișinău.
“This is how he started to learn about rugby and develop new skills. I saw his progress and spoke with my agent to help him into a French academy in Pau. At the moment he has got to Top 14, he has made huge progress, but he should focus on developing his potential. I hope he will succeed in the future. At the moment he has a platform, but it all depends on his motivation, dedication, taking responsibility and hard work.”
Which is a superb sentiment. But off the back of it, more questions drip down.
In Europe and in particular France, we are used to seeing forwards packs propped up by Georgian bruisers, but what makes Moldovans special? After showing real promise just a few Rugby World Cup cycles ago, and with Cobîlaș and others scorching a path out of their former Soviet state, what has happened to their production line of talent?
“Georgia is special for front-rowers,” explains Moldovan lock Andrei Mahu, who plays for the Krasny Yar club in Siberia these days. “But Moldova also produces second-rows and back-rows as well as props, so I think we had even bigger potential.
“Maybe it’s the power of the people in that region. Even here in Russia, the Moldovans are the bigger guys. It’s natural – people are pretty big in Moldova!”
Combat sports like wrestling and boxing have a long history in the region, with weightlifting another sporting avenue. Yet Mahu explains that in the current climate, “all sports in Moldova are struggling” and the path out of Moldova for ambitious rugby players has proven pretty tough. Both he and Enisei star Maxim Gargalic, a compatriot and No 8, came out of the university game in Moldova before moving abroad. The latter ended up Constanta, Romania, after his coach talked him up.
Another player to get out via Romania was current Cardiff Blue Dmitri Arhip. The prop tells Rugby World that he left his home in Chișinău at just 14 and a half, determined to show his family he could make something of himself.
He would put in the years in Dinamo Bucharest’s junior and then senior sides. When he too made it to Enisei – with whom he would do battle with Cobîlaș a few times, a quirky callback to a time the pair had been club-mates in Chișinău – Russian titles would arrive. But in order to progress further so much still came down to chance as well as his undeniable hard work.
It was in an off-season game against Connacht that Ospreys coach Jon Humphreys saw something in Arhip. Having brought him to Wales, he and Steve Tandy invested resources in him, but importantly showed patience when the prop blew his Achilles. Motivated by daily encounters with Adam, Alun Wyn and Duncan Jones, Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb and Richard Hibbard, he began to “build” himself.
In talking about how today’s Moldovan youngsters could follow the lead of recent heroes, he touches on the need for fortune.
“The story of Cristian (Ojovan) is completely different,” he starts. “He had huge support from Vadim. And the first man to open the door to Europe for us was Vadim.
“We both worked so hard to get to this level. And especially on my side, I was very lucky. Because I don’t know what happens if Jon is not present at that game to see me, it’s hard to say. My road to professional rugby was very long and very hard.
“When I was in Romania sometimes we didn’t have food. Maybe not clothes or other things. It was a very tough life. In the juniors we weren’t paid and on the senior team I was very young and my salary was very low. Sometimes it was only just enough for food.
“Moldova has created a lot of big, good players, but not many played in Europe. We didn’t play at a high enough level to be seen by other people, or agents. So the story of Cristian is different from my and Vadim’s story.”
During lockdown, Arhip was working out in his garage with fellow Moldovan prop Gheorghe Gajion – a man he describes as “the strongest I have ever seen in my life – a machine!” After two years with the Ospreys, Gajion will head to Aurillac in ProD2 for more game time. Although disappointed the Ospreys did not give the near 21-stone forward more game time, Arhip is convinced Gajion can make something of himself in France.
So we have tabs on the movements of some of these players in the UK and France, and there is the established run into Romania and Russia… But today many Moldovans asked about the route to the top of the game explain that there is shrinking demand in some markets, if there ever was any before.
And they look to home for the reasons why.
When Moldova were pushing hard on the trail to qualification for Rugby World Cup 2015, Craig Felston was playing fly-half. In his words, the stretch with the team over 2013 and 2014 were the proudest days of his life and he loved playing behind a pack full of menacing combatants and in love with doing the tough stuff.
But even then, there were issues behind the scenes.
Felston tells Rugby World: “We went from 25th in the world to wherever we are now (59). In 2014 we were better than Russia, 100%, but then we couldn’t get a team out and with Moldova it’s either the first team or it’s like the fifths team.
“In that build-up we beat Germany, like five match points to zero match points, but they went on to qualify further because they had their (best) team the whole time – and even then they only lost to Russia with two late tries. We’d absolutely demolished Germany and I was so certain we could have played in that top league (Rugby Europe) and done really well and in the end we kind of lost everyone.”
Today, Moldova play in Rugby Europe’s Conference Two North, alongside Austria, Denmark, Finland and Norway. So what about politics – why could you never keep fielding the top team every game?
“Basically there was an issue that went all the way to the supreme court over who ran the rugby federation in Moldova,” Felston replies.
According to several parties, there has been a years-long schism within Moldovan rugby. Two clubs who came out of the university game there rose to prominence – and neither ever saw eye to eye. Felston explains that when one of two factions was in control of the federation, players allied to the other side would abstain from playing. And there was an ongoing power struggle between two would-be presidents.
Cobîlaș refused to play for his country because of the quarrel, as have many others.
Gargalic has seen the union in disarray for years – he explains that he would have been willing to help with younger generations if anyone ever asked. But they haven’t. Finances have since been a struggle, with some interviewed explaining the personal cost of flying out to represent their nation.
“It almost killed rugby in Moldova, this dispute,” says Mahu of the ‘civil war’ within the sport. “When I first came to rugby in Moldova we had five to six sports clubs, and a lot of young guys came to rugby. There was no money but there was really good enthusiasm.
“The national team was pretty good, and guys like Cobîlaș, Arhip, Gajion came from Russia to play. When this (schism) happened, none of the foreigners came to play for Moldova and we played more amateurs and we just dropped.
“It’s very sad for me because I loved playing for the national team but now it’s pointless.”
Rugby Europe have told us: “We are aware of the ongoing changes within the union, of which we are monitoring closely and helping in its efforts to organise the sport of rugby in the country.” Rugby World also understands that the continental organisation is satisfied the Moldovans currently comply with all of the requirements demanded of member unions and that Rugby Europe recognises and works with Alexei Cotruta as the federation head.
Felston says he believes things are edging in the right direction again. However, Mahu goes on: “I think it’s too late for our generation. These guys (stars) will not come back to play for Moldova. They need to rebuild everything from zero.
“But it’s very hard; they lost this huge opportunity to be like a small Georgia. And without any money – Moldova is a very poor country and even the soccer team are struggling for money – it’s very hard to build something now.”
Gargalic believes that rugby needs promotion if it is to thrive – but there also needs to be a tight grip on what happens to any money made available. And he wants to see investment in schools, villages and towns, to bring in more and better coaches.
Arhip has seen self-interest “destroy rugby in Moldova” but he feels a robust financial plan is vital, and agrees that schools and universities hold the key. Yet again he cautions that you need the right people in charge at the federation.
Cobîlaș gives his own thoughts, adding: “Moldova is a beautiful country with lots of friendly, talented, responsible and hard-working people. For sure there is a need for some investment projects, to create an infrastructure for new generations.
“There is a demand from parents and also young players showing an interest. But at some point, when they don’t get a salary or don’t have prospects, they are disappointed and look for a proper job (away from rugby).
“With a good infrastructure, rugby pitches for completion, learning centres for coaches, financial support to participate in the competitions at the international level, the results would flow and this sport could become number one in Moldova.”
The prop goes on to recall a time when he heard Steve Diamond say: “If you want to find good forwards go to Georgia, Romania and Moldova.” At the moment, few are searching there.
Like Arhip, Cobîlaș is a softly spoken, thoughtful and optimistic character… who just happens to be a fearsome forward. But the pair wonder if young players starting from a low level of ability would go through what they did to make it to the top.
So after studying at the Toulouse business school, Cobîlaș set up the project Scrum Play Rugby Academy, telling us that the focus is “on producing top-level forwards and helping players and coaches to develop their scrum skills”.
Arhip ponders why it is that Eastern European forwards have become the must-have accessory for top clubs – “In Moldova we’ve had very good backs as well,” he adds. But as it stands, Moldova is less of a forwards factory for the elite game and more of a starting point for those incredible few artisans.
It could take years for the number of professionals to come out of the country to climb higher, if indeed it ever can. Still, Arhip expects Gaijon to come good while there is so much in front of Soroca’s Ojovan.
A nation waits.
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