Forget players coming in to established rugby powerhouses, Alan Dymock talks with one Scot who hopes to play for Romania in Rugby World Cup 2019. This is part of the Great Migration series
Michael Doneghan came through the Scottish Academy system, spending time with Glasgow and the sevens before playing in the English Championship with London Scottish. And after a brief stint with AS Macon in Fédérale 1, he is now into his second season with Baia Mare in Romania’s professional league.
As the centre-cum-winger explains, he’s not far off realising a unique dream: “I’ll openly say it to you, come my three years in Romania, that’ll enable me to push for the national team with them. I’d love to make the World Cup squad. They’re playing in the European Nations Cup, they’re winning that. They’re playing Six Nations B, they’ve won that. It’s really competitive now. If Scotland gave me the call I don’t know what I’d say, but it’s not likely. I’d love to be in that group with Romania, if they qualify.”
He has trained with a Romania B squad masquerading as a ‘President’s Select’, under the watchful eyes of the Romanian national coaches, Lynn Howells, Rob Moffat and Massimo Cuttitta, the very group who coached Edinburgh back in the 2006-07 season. Doneghan hopes he can impress over the rest of this season, with Baia Mare second in the SuperLiga table.
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Romania’s professional league is somewhat of a mystery to those of us rooted in the West. There are seven professional teams, with the top four sides, Baia Mare, Timisoara Saracens, Steaua Bucharest and CSM Bucharest, competing strongly. But there are only seven for a reason. Money is king in Romania. With teams privately owned, the size of the bank balance is key to success and survival. It is very easy to go from boom to bust, as demonstrated by Farul Constanta, who suffered a recent financial collapse and fell out of the league.
Some also see Romania as a haven for players from foreign climes who are not considered must-haves in other pro leagues around the world. More talent coming into the league for a few years creates the opportunity to play under a different flag, as Doneghan hopes to do, and this has drawn criticism from some, at least it did when the news reached the greater rugby public that Romania had selected seven Pacific-born players in their November squad.
“I think every single team has at least two foreign guys, probably more than that,” Doneghan says on the outside influence coming into the league. “The majority are Tongan. There’s a rule that you can have eight foreign guys in the squad. We’ve got maybe 12 or 13, however two of them have played for Romania, so don’t count any more.
“I’m the only Scotsman in the league. There’s Jack Cobden at CSM Bucharest. He’s played for the national team. He’s English. We’ve got four Fijians, four Tongans, two South Africans, myself and two Georgians. There’s maybe five or six guys who may say they’re Moldovan, but may just be from the Moldovan region of the country, so they’re Romanian but will speak a different dialect. It’s very multicultural here. I remember one of our games, our entire back-line were speaking English and we were facing Timisoara ,whose entire back-line were speaking English. I felt like I was back in the Championship. In France there wasn’t a lot of that.”
There is more opportunity to pack your boots and travel the world than ever before. The motivations of why players do so is something we can seek to understand. For Doneghan it is the desire not to give up on his dream – he never went to university, he just wanted to play rugby and he is not prepared to head back to the UK just yet. He is enjoying himself too, playing among athletes from different cultures. He is learning the language, a little bit at a time. There are so many positives for the back.
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But what went through his head when he first rocked up to Romania? “I thought, ‘If I don’t like it I can just leave.’ What’s really attractive for Romanian rugby, particularly the best four teams, is that we can get into the Challenge Cup. I was really pleasantly surprised with how good the rugby is here. It’s maybe lacking in things like cryochambers and top analysis, but our changing rooms are the best I’ve ever had; we’ve got a sauna, we’ve got a big bath for hot and one for ice, the showers are great… The pitches are usually pretty good. It seems most guys sign for at least two years too.
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“I’d love to end on a high, either the Challenge Cup or international rugby. There are so many guys who have gone down the road and thought: ‘I can take the chance and miss out on a few years of life, so to speak, or I don’t risk it and do something else.’ I’ve chosen to take the risk. I’m a single guy, I still love rugby, so why not? If I don’t like it, c’est la vie, I can come back to the UK. That’s one thing. People in Britain and France sometimes don’t realise how lucky they are in terms of handouts, the NHS, minimum wage… in Romania doctors will be earning €300 a month. They’ve not got motorways and there are issues with horses and carts, stray dogs. You can get maybe five people in a one-bedroom apartment. So I’m quite lucky (to earn a good wage to play rugby). If anything does go wrong, I’ve got a nation to go back to that will help me. Well, I hope so anyway!”
There are little things to deal with aside from playing. The lack of good vegetarian food or Irn Bru is a bit of a concern, and travelling from the north of Romania to face a rival can take up to 12 hours on a sleeper bus. But those minor issues won’t stop him from hustling for his club, in the hope he can do just the same for the Romanian national team one day.