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Spain’s rugby ambitions foiled in disastrous Six Nations

The country’s federation has sought a clean start, bringing in a new coach and sidelining many foreign players. But the results still aren’t coming.

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Spain's rugby team in action.

Spain’s rugby team has lost ground in recent months.

As this year’s Six Nations proper drew to a close with drama for the British sides, the same cannot be said for Spain and Portugal, who play in the tournament’s second tier.

Mustering only a single win between them, the Iberian sides’ performances were sorely disappointing, given that both countries have been aiming to move up a notch in the rugby world, inspired by the example of Italy. And for Spain, a global superpower in so many other sports, this season has been particularly deflating.

Played over a two-year cycle (2013-14) alongside the showpiece event, the European Nations Cup Division 1A, to give it its full name, also doubles up as the qualifying rounds of the Rugby World Cup 2015, to be held in England.

Having each achieved success in recent editions of the tournament, most notably with Spain’s third-place finish in the 2010-12 edition, and Portugal’s World Cup qualification in 2007, there were high hopes for both sides as the tournament kicked off at the beginning of February.

Spain, ranked a record-high 18th in the world pre-tournament, travelled to Sochi, to take on Russia, who reached the group stages of the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, whilst Portugal faced World Cup regulars Romania in Lisbon. Both sides lost, failing to gain any real momentum for the rest of their qualifying campaigns.

The Spaniards failed to gain a single victory in any of their five games, drawing with Belgium (21-21) and Portugal (9-9), and losing to Russia (13-9), Romania (15-25), and Georgia (61-18), to leave them bottom of the pool on five points. Whilst Portugal’s only win came against the Belgians in Lisbon (18-12), they lost to Georgia (25-12), Russia (23-31) and Romania (13-19), leaving them fourth with seven points, a further seven behind third-placed Russia.

 

Place

Nation

Games

Points

P

W

D

L

Bonus points

1

 Georgia

5

4

1

0

1

19

2

 Romania

5

4

1

0

1

19

3

 Russia

5

3

0

2

2

14

4

 Portugal

5

1

1

3

1

7

5

 Belgium

5

0

1

4

3

5

6

 Spain

5

0

2

3

1

5

 

Given the expectation, Spain’s failings have caused substantial worry and upset for both fans and commentators alike, many of whom were looking forward to the World Cup before the qualifying stages had begun. And their situation wouldn’t be complete without the obligatory round of politics accompanying it.

Régis Sonnes was coach of the team that had finished third in 2012. A Frenchman, Sonnes built a side consisting largely of players who were born, bred, and playing in his native country. Names like Mathieu, Pierre, and Sébastien started appearing on the teamsheet alongside those of other extranjeros such as Joe, Tom and Glenn.

Despite the fact this légion étrangère spoke little of the language, were involved in countless club-versus-country rows, and (somewhat justifiably) took starting places away from bonafide Spaniards, they had managed to defeat both Romania and Georgia, and looked to be certain challengers next time round when it came to reaching rugby’s promised land. However, and this is where the situation becomes frustratingly Spanish, not content with a record-high world ranking and third place in the Six Nations second tier, the Federación Española de Rugby (FER) hierarchy decided that el XV del León needed players who were proud to wear the jersey, feeling they had home-born players who could do an equal job, and thought it would be best to bring in a new coach to oversee the transition.

Too much, too soon

This proved to be a classic case of wanting too much too soon. Unlike the Italians, who bode their time, introducing members of their (mainly Argentinean-born) diaspora to the side, building up an interest in the game in their country to a level where their domestic sides now compete at high level European competition, the Spaniards went all out. They replaced Sonnes – just months after taking the game in their country to an all time high – with Bryce Bevin, a Kiwi returning for his second spell as Los Leones coach in July of last year.

Whilst the FER’s ambition is admirable, it must be remembered that Spanish rugby is a sport with only around 30,000 registered players (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 rugby premier league – the División de Honor –  has only 12 teams competing in it, with the vast majority of participants having regular nine-to-five job before training in the evenings.

The ongoing economic crisis does not help matters; league champions VRAC Quesos Entrepinares were 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 future, on the other hand, does look positive for Spain. Their U18 national side won the junior version of the Six Nations B, and will compete in the premier division next season against the likes of England, Wales and Scotland, whilst evidence of the games’ growing reach and popularity in the country can be illustrated by the fact the European U19s tournament, featuring the likes of France and Italy, is being hosted this month in the idyllic setting of Palma de Mallorca.

Club versus country

Yet at senior level, the tale is quite different, as Bevin was charged with gaining World Cup qualification, despite only having six months in which to prepare and assemble a new look side and be ready to compete against the best of the rest.

Upon taking the job, the New Zealander said he wouldn’t stand for any more disputes when it came down to club or country. “Players can’t simply choose when they want to pull on the red shirt. It’s the coach who gives them the opportunity and they should honour it”, he said, in a barely concealed dig at the France-based players who frequently put club matters ahead of the Spanish national side last season. Out they have gone, and in their place have come a new wave of eager, young Spanish-born players, perhaps unaware of the size of the task that lay ahead.

And so, as discipline, performances and results worsened, the criticism grew, and many of the side’s aficionados are now questioning whether or not their hunger and desire to have a ‘proper’ Spanish national team came too quickly, with many fans taking to social media to lament the decision to get rid of Sonnes – months after waving him off at the airport. Bevin might now be wondering if it is worth a phone call to those French players he left behind at the start of the campaign in order to help his side just to stay in the division, let alone play in the World Cup.





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Published: Apr 10 2013
Category: Featured, Spain News, Sports
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
Short URL: http://iberosphere.com/?p=8333
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