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The Other Six Nations: Los Leones start their 2015 qualifying campaign under the radar

Por: | 04 de febrero de 2013

As the guiris (myself included) filled out the Irish bars this weekend to sup cider and Guinness whilst watching the opening matches of the Six Nations played in front of packed 60,000 plus stadiums, one of Spain’s lesser known national sides embarked upon their own rugby adventure.

A world away from Twickenham, Murrayfield, and Le Stade de France lies the European Nations Cup Division 1A (or, if you like, Six Nations Division 2), which also doubles up as the qualifying rounds for the Rugby World Cup 2015, to be held in England. Matches are, somewhat peculiarly, played in tandem with the ‘box office’ Six Nations games, thus reducing the chances of national broadcasters like Canal+ or Teledeporte buying the viewing rights – something which the IRB will surely have to address if they are serious about developing more interest in the game in so called ‘minor’ nations. The qualifying period agonisingly lasts well over a year (due to the fact the Six Nations is only once a year), and standings are only confirmed after each team has played each other both at home and away at the end of a two-year cycle. Complicated.

The top two placed sides will automatically gain a place in La Copa Mundial, and the third placed team goes into a repechage playoff for one last chance at making it. Even more complicated.

New Leones coach Bryce Bevin – a Kiwi – took charge in July, and has quickly assembled a new core of Spanish-born players, complimented with a small group of distinctly non-Spanish sounding names who have qualified for selection via residency, playing in the División de Honor (the La Liga of rugby), who he believes are capable of helping Spain reach what would be only their second ever Rugby World Cup; the first and last being in 1999. Bevin will surely be looking to the example of Italy, who through a fine balance of home-grown talent, imports and clever use of their large diaspora (mainly found in Argentina) have gone from Six Nations whipping boys to taking full points from World Cup finalists France in two of their last three meetings in the tournament. 

Smells Like Team Spirit: Spain's players unite during the national anthm, with a rather empty grandstand in the background (Photo via FER website)

The main criticism that haunted Bevin’s predecessor, Frenchman Regis Sonnes, was that he recruited too many of his fellow countrymen who spoke little of the language, were based outside of Spain and lacked the desired commitment to la selección, with club duties often coming first. That’s not to take anything away from Sonnes and the work he did. He and his légion étrangère have taken Spain, and Spanish rugby to a new level. The national side sit at a record-high ranking of 18th in the world, ahead of Nations Cup rivals Romania and Russia (19th and 20th respectively), just behind Japan and USA, all four of whom qualified for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. This achievement is all the more admirable, given there are only around 30,000 registered players of the sport (very few of whom are professional) in a country that boasts either the World and/or European Champions in the more lucrative games of football, basketball and handball, and has seven of the top 50 tennis players in the world. Even a newly expanded División de Honor only has 12 teams, with the vast majority of players having to do a regular nine-to-five job before training in the evenings. The worsening financial crisis does not help matters in the world of Spanish Rugby either; league champions VRAC Quesos Entrepinares unable to take their place in the Amlin Challenge Cup due to the fact they simply could not afford to embark on a European campaign. The nearest team who had the financial clout to take on such a challenge in their absence was fifth placed Basque outfit Bizkaia Gernika, a side fortunate enough to benefit from regional government funding.

Spain’s national Sevens side now forms part of the IRB’s 15 ‘core’ nations, and as such will participate at all nine of the official HSBC Sevens World Series tournaments this 2012-13 season; which started off with the impressive 19-14 defeat of England in the final of Australia’s Gold Coast ‘Bowl’ – a knockout competition for the teams who finished in the bottom two of their initial pool groups. This newfound success in the shorter, smaller form of the game actually creates a rather large problem for Bevin. Spain’s pool of elite players is small, and in selecting a strong squad for the Sevens Series’, they actually harm their chances of qualifying for 2015, with Sevens tournaments being held in New Zealand, and then USA at the same time as the opening two European Nations Cup fixtures. They don’t have the luxury of elite rugby nations such as England, Australia and New Zealand, who have entirely different rosters for the 15-a-side and 7-a-side games.

And so, as first orders were being taken at 11am CET and the words to songs like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot were being rehearsed religiously, Spain lined up against Russia at a freezing, and by all accounts very empty Stadium in Sochi. The Bears, as the Russian’s are aptly nicknamed (due to the fact their players all seem to be the size of one) defeated Spain twice in the 2010-12 edition of this tournament, however could only finish fourth overall, whereas Spain came second; the same finish this time round would see the team reach England 2015 – no pressure! Taking lessons from their more illustrious companions, The Lions kicked themselves into a 7-9 lead early in the second half, a penalty from La Vila’s Javier Carrión, and two drop goals from former Aviva Premiership player César Sempere putting the away side within touching distance of a win. However two late Russian penalties turned the game, and Spain were unable to recover sufficiently in the remaining minutes to recoup the deficit, and the match ended in a 13-9 defeat. A small consolation is that they at least come away with a bonus point owing to the fact they lost by fewer than seven points, yet Bevin will perhaps be left wondering what might have been should the players involved with the Sevens have been available.

Spain rugby
Action from Spain vs. Russia (Photo via FER website)

Any pondering and regrouping will have to be done quickly, as the second round of fixtures is rapidly approaching. Brussels is the venue on February 9th, as Belgium (who were also defeated in their opening fixture; 13-17 by favourites, and highest-ranked side in the group Georgia) provide the opposition. Although early in the calendar, the fixture is a must win game for El XV del Leon given the opposition, and their lack of experience at this level of rugby. Two weeks later Romania travel to Gijón, followed by a trip to Georgia and a final game against the old enemy Portugal in Santiago de Compostela, by which time it could be all over, or just beginning for one of Spain’s smaller, less successful selecciones.

All games will be shown via a live stream on


Hay 6 Comentarios

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Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

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