By Jerome Pugmire, The Associated Press
LEICESTER, England – Romania produced the biggest comeback in Rugby World Cup history to rally from a 15-point deficit and beat Canada 17-15 in a Rugby World Cup Pool D match on Tuesday, clinching the dramatic victory with a nerveless late penalty from centre Florin Vlaicu.
It was not as dramatic as France’s semifinal comeback against New Zealand at the 1999 World Cup, where the French trailed 24-10 before triumphing 43-31. But it was certainly tension-filled at Leicester’s City Stadium, as Vlauci held his nerve to land the winning kick with three minutes left.
Canada was in control when left winger DTH Van Der Merwe scored late in the first half â€” his fourth try of the tournament â€” and right winger Jeff Hassler crossed four minutes after halftime.
But Romania’s bold decision to forsake penalty kicks for attacking lineouts and scrums paid off.
Canada played the last eight minutes with a man down after flanker Jebb Sinclair was sin-binned, and paid a serious price. Four missed shots at goal and too many wasted attacking chances also cost the Canadians.
“We said if we could stay within 14 points going into the last 20 minutes we knew we’d get the chance,” Romania coach Lynn Howells said. “We saw that â€” Canada’s wide game fell apart.”
Still, it needed an inspired individual performance to get them going and captain Mihai Macovei delivered it for Romania with two tries, the No. 8 bundling over the line for his second with five minutes left.
“He’s a captain that leads by example, even when we did struggle he was able to pull everyone together,” Howells said.
Canada’s players appealed for a double-movement on the second try, but referee Wayne Barnes awarded it after asking for a television referral. Vlaicu â€” who missed two first-half penalty attempts â€” added the extras and there was just one point in it.
After Canada’s scrum was penalized in the 78th minute, Vlaicu calmly guided his kick through the posts to send the Romania fans into celebrations.
“He’s the top point scorer in Romanian rugby and he deserves that,” Howells said.
Romania has four points and can still finish in third place in the group â€” assuring automatic qualification for the 2019 World Cup â€” if it beats Italy next weekend.
Canada has played some great attacking rugby at this tournament, but it has also thrown away game-winning positions, having led 10-0 against Italy before losing 23-18.
“We did some pretty naive things in the last 30 minutes,” Canada coach Kieran Crowley said. “Romania deserved to win.”
Van Der Merwe showed his clinical finishing skills, side-stepping left and then cutting back right for his fourth try of the tournament and 20th in tests to make it 8-0 after 33 minutes. Van Der Merwe has scored in every pool game and only New Zealand’s Julian Savea has more with five tries.
Hassler, too, showed great strength to break two tackles to make it 15-0 early in the second half.
Then it all went wrong.
“We got a try straight after halftime and then the wheels fell off,” Crowley said. “We’re just not good enough in the final plays. We just have to get better.”
Scrumhalf Gordon McRorie landed only one of three penalties and missed a conversion in the first half. Flyhalf Nathan Hirayama took kicking duties after the break, and although he converted the second try he also missed a penalty.
It was a scrappy early on, not helped by the wet conditions caused by a downpour before kickoff.
The Oaks got their first chance for points when Canada collapsed the scrum but Vlaicu’s effort from near halfway fell short. His next long-range effort missed, too, but he was saving his best for last.
Howells said the players would celebrate in moderation.
“They’ve earned the right,” he said. “They’ll have a beer but it won’t be to any great extent.”
The celebrations promise to be wilder if Romania beats Italy.