There aren’t any medals for last place. At international tournaments the teams bringing up the rear often slip away with little fanfare, forgotten as the knockout stages burst into life.
On 18 October 1999, Alfonso Feijoo’s Spain were confirmed as the worst side at the fourth Rugby World Cup, finishing just behind Italy in 20th position based on their pool performance, but on this occasion their efforts would prove to be vital in the shake-up of European rugby.
At the first three Rugby World Cups, Europe had been represented by the Five Nations powerhouses, along with Italy and Romania. Spain were the first side to break into this group after coming through a wide-ranging qualifying campaign, which included major Test nations such as England, Scotland and Ireland. Their reward was a place in Pool A in Wales, alongside South Africa, the reigning champions, Scotland and Uruguay. This was the big time.
Spanish actor Javier Bardem – a former age-grade international turned Oscar-winner – once noted, “playing rugby in Spain is like being a bull fighter in Japan”. For Feijoo and his team the Rugby World Cup was a level of competition and exposure that they hadn’t experienced before, but they brought plenty of ambition to the table.
Steep learning curve
Their opening match was a landmark not only for Spanish rugby, but also for the tournament itself. Full back Alfonso Cardoso scored a late double in Galashiels as Uruguay prevailed 27-15 in the 100th Rugby World Cup pool match, which also doubled as their first ever win in the competition.
For Los Leones, the incline grew steeper by the day. The following week, they were up against the Springboks, who fielded a selection at Murrayfield that featured a monster pack. Undeterred, Spain flew out of the blocks and rocked their opponents onto the back-foot. In full back Francisco Puertas they had a willing, elusive runner and they would have snared an early lead if not for a malfunction to kicker Aitor Etxeberria’s radar.
South Africa eventually recovered and exerted their forward dominance, although they had been prevented from crossing for half an hour despite many onlookers predicting a cricket score. Their prowess at the scrum told in the second half, while the giant second row Krynauw Otto added an exclamation point by smashing the enterprising Puertas, who retired at the end of the tournament as Spain’s most-capped player. The scoreboard read 47-3 at full-time.
Battered but unbowed, Spain moved on to face their hosts Scotland. While the match has long ago been lost to the annals of international rugby, it too held points of interest for both teams. The Murrayfield crowd got a first glimpse of Chris Paterson in a Scotland jersey as he won the first of his record 109 caps.
For Spain, there was the pleasure of halving the deficit incurred against the Scots during qualifying. The 48-0 scoreline wasn’t pretty but Feijoo remained proud of his team’s efforts, and with good reason. They had broken new ground and provided fresh faces in a tournament whose borders were widening.
The road to the top
“It is vital for small rugby playing countries like ours to increase our experience, and to do that we must participate,” he said as his side prepared to fly home. “It is a big mistake to close international rugby to just the biggest rugby playing nations in the world.”
Since Rugby World Cup 1999, Spain haven’t returned to the top table. Their example, however, has been followed. Georgia, Portugal and Russia have all made their tournament bows since then, with the Lelos now boasting a formidable, professional side with players scattered throughout Europe’s top leagues.
With qualifying for Rugby World Cup 2015 now underway, Spain will soon set foot on the road towards the tournament in England. They begin in February with a tough European Nations Cup away trip to Russia, one of the teams to have usurped them in recent seasons.
Overseeing their efforts is Bryce Bevin, a former Auckland and Manawatu representative with a long history in Spain. Now settled in Getxo, he first teamed up with the national side between 1993 and 1997 after a spell working as a lawyer and coaching Auckland Universities. He returned to the hotseat in 2012 after a second European sojourn, during which time he coached with great success at club level in Portugal and Spain.
Since taking the reins, Bevin has been working to identify his strongest pool of players and secure their availability prior to qualifying – with the inclusion of Rugby Sevens as an Olympic sport another boost to his ambitions. Only two weeks ago, Spain knocked over England on Australia’s Gold Coast in the opening round of the 2012/13 HSBC Sevens World Series.
“We’re in transition,” he said. “There were so many players used in the internationals over the last two years and I’ve been around since June or July trying to identify who are the best. I threw the net over the whole of France as well, there are Spanish qualified players there, and that was a positive thing as a lot of good players want to play for Spain.
“We have to look at getting the right balance between Sevens and Fifteens. We’re not a country that is inundated with talented athletes so there are going to be crossovers. The guys that are playing Sevens, they’ve been doing that for three or four years, being trained up as high-class athletes.”
Another objective for Bevin and Spain is to raise the level of professionalism in the domestic game, a vital cog if they are to continue their run at emulating the emerging European powers in Georgia and Russia.
“This seems to be the key,” he said. “Spain is a hybrid country. In the same league you have amateur rugby players, semi-pro and full-time professionals. You’ve got a guy who works full-time, playing against a full-time pro from New Zealand in the same competition.
“The new mandate here is to try and professionalise rugby, in terms of contracting players to play Sevens and Fifteens for the Spanish Rugby Union. They’ll be playing for their clubs, but being professional. That is one solution.”