As recently as 2015 they could claim to be Europe’s eighth ranked test nation, but for the first time since 2002 it looks likely that in 2019 there will be not test rugby played by Belgium.
Outside the Six Nations test rugby has had a tough time in Europe in recent years but, of all of the second-tier nations, few have been as loyal to the fifteens game as Belgium. The Lionesses have taken the field every season for the past fifteen years but, just as test rugby is re-emerging from its Sevens-inspired doldrums, the future of one of Europe’s longest running national fifteens programmes is in doubt. Bruno Verscheure from Belgian rugby website Sportkipik.be takes up the story:
The Belgian national team has been inactive for several months now - for the lack of a budget.
"We have a choice. Either we stop everything because there is no point, or we keep trying to do some training in the hope of possible future matches which, in my opinion, it's not viable." These words are those of Xavier Bossert, joint coach of the Belgian national team alongside Renaud Labardant.
The two men are asking questions. No matches or training have taken place since last spring. After presenting an (ambitious) programme this summer, Xavier Bossert and Renaud Labardant took the Belgian Federation's response as a slap in the face when in response they said that no budget would be available for the women's team this season (2018-19).
The finances of the Belgian Federation are far from good, forcing the latter to make choices and concentrate almost solely on the Black Devils [men’s XVs] and BelSevens [women’s sevens].
"I know there are priorities, that some teams need more financial support than others - no problem - but that is zero euros for the Belgian women's XVs team, which is still one of Belgian rugby’s most high profile teams. Coaches do not need be paid – we do not ask for it - but you need money for the training, for travelling to matches, or for the games you host" adds the co-coach of the Lionesses. "You can sometimes turn to the clubs, but it's not sustainable."
The disappointing results recorded last season probably did not support the cause of the Lionesses. "If we had money, the ideal would be to do between 6 and 8 games a year, with the Netherlands who are a few kilometres from home, with Germany that is not much further, even with clubs or French selections. At the financial level, it does not require much. On the back of more training and games, we could correct things and be competitive in the European Championship, which we were not last year, "concludes Xavier Bossert.
"At the women’s level, the focus is on 7s. Even so last year, we still decided to host and participate in the Women's European Championship," says Salvatore Zandona, president of the Federation. "After some good semi-finals, we were hit by the cold and snow, which resulted in a financial shortfall."
"We are not saying that we do not want this (XVs) team to exist, we will try to develop opportunities - with the Netherlands, for example - we will try to find matches, we will offer them to players. Outside the Six Nations, Russia, Spain and Belgium are the only countries to have more than 1000 players, and we are one of the few countries to have such a strong women's championship. But we need for structural changes, an increase in the sources of income - especially via the increase in the contributions - otherwise we will not manage to get out of this rut, "concludes Salvatore Zandona.
The draw from the 2019 European Championship was announced this week, without Belgium. The semi-finals will be:
24/2/19: Spain v Russia (Madrid)
09/3/19: Netherlands v Germany (Amsterdam)