Friday, February 08, 2013

Spain's Other Football: Rugby

Spain have taken part in the finals of Rugby World Cup once and once only. In 1999, they were officially the worst team in the tournament, their performances in their three preliminary group matches placing them twentieth out of twenty. They scored 15 points in losing to Uruguay and scored only three more points in the tournament, against South Africa. They registered nil against Scotland.

1999 wasn't a humiliating failure, however. Neither South Africa nor Scotland broke the 50 points barrier (though both came close), and Spain were hailed for having put in valiant displays against their betters. Being ranked the worst team of that tournament doesn't tell the whole story though, because which team was one place above them in nineteenth? Italy. And the following year, Italy joined the other five nations to make what there now is - the Six Nations Championship.

The history of rugby union in Spain is almost identical to that in Italy in that the two countries have both played internationals since the late 1920s. Indeed, the first officially recognised international that Spain played was against Italy (it was also Italy's first international), and Spain won 9-0. The clearest divergence in the development of rugby in the two countries was that which occurred in the 1980s when leading foreign players and coaches joined the Italian championship; it was this foreign influx which contributed to advances in the Italian game and which eventually led to admission to the Six Nations.

Italy has, therefore, been something of a model for Spanish rugby, but the model has not proved to be strong. Foreign players and coaches have come into the Spanish game, but the national championship has never acquired a similar standing to that of the Italian championship and nor have the likes of David Campese or John Kirwan played for Spanish sides. 

While Italy (as of 4 February) occupy ninth position in the International Rugby Board's rankings, Spain are twentieth. Immediately above Spain are, in ascending order, Russia, Romania, Georgia, USA, Japan and Canada, some of these more regular participants in World Cup finals than others. Spain are, therefore, part of a group of rugby-playing nations below the top echelon but with ambitions of joining it, and the most immediate ambitions extend to the next World Cup finals in 2015.

The qualifying games for the tournament in England are being held over a two-year period and they started recently, Spain losing their first match, away against Russia, by 13-9. Spain will hope for an improvement tomorrow when they play Belgium (one place below them in the IRB rankings) in Brussels. The top two sides from what is in effect a junior Six Nations tournament will qualify automatically for the 2015 tournament.

Spain are hampered, however, by various factors. The pool of registered players in Spain is under 30,000 (in Italy there are almost 75,000). There are few full-time professionals and there is a woeful lack of funding. The national side has a New Zealand coach, Bryce Bevin, and a greater concentration of genuinely Spanish players than has been the case in recent years, but the overall absence of professionalism is what is likely to hold Spanish rugby back. It is this professionalism which marks the greatest contrast with how Italy were able to develop the sport. Spain are also not helped by Sevens tournaments coinciding with the qualifiers. Because of the limited talent pool, Spain have included some leading players in these rather than in the 15-man side.  

It is clear, though, that there is no lack of enthusiasm and of interest in rugby. While the sport's heartlands have traditionally been around Madrid and in Catalonia and the Basque Country, its popularity has widened. An indication of this are the reports in the "Majorca Daily Bulletin". The Balearics are just one region where rugby has gained in popularity.

But unless there were to be a real initiative to create a strong professional domestic game, it is hard to see Spain realising ambitions of emulating Italy. The IRB should probably be taking more of a lead in helping these ambitions (and not just in Spain), but as with cricket, international administrators at times appear contrary when it comes to developing their minor nations. The ICC's ridiculous attitude towards associate members participating in cricket's 2015 World Cup, one on which it has since backed down, is a prime example.

Despite the obstacles, Spain could yet secure themselves a place in the 2015 tournament. Unlike the football team or the men's handball team (which won the recent world championship), Spain's rugby team will not become world champions, but it could become competitive. If only there was the funding.

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