With New Zealand retaining the Webb Ellis Cup on the same day as Spain won the 2015 Rugby Europe U19 Championship last November, it was understandable that the Iberian country's achievement was somewhat overshadowed by the tumultuous events at Twickenham.
From a Spanish point of view though, the title-clinching 24-3 win against Romania, in the all-important final game of the U19 Championship, was a hugely significant moment for them in terms of age-grade rugby because it saw them qualify for the World Rugby U20 Trophy for the first time in their history. Previously, they had never finished higher than third in the region's U19 Championship.
“It was certainly an historic occasion; to win the European U19 Championship, we beat Romania and Russia, teams that we’d usually lose against,” said coach Santiago Santos. “This tournament could be a turning point for age-grade rugby in Spain.”
Former Leones captain Santos has selected a strong squad for the eight-team event with six players who have played senior club rugby in the national competition, División de Honor, and four others based in France.
A team with no real stars but a wealth of experience will play in Pool B against Hong Kong, Zimbabwe and USA in the 19 April to 1 May tournament.
Hope and enthusiasm
Loose-head prop Jaume Genabat and French-born loose forward Baptiste Bougeard, who both play for Catalonian club UE Santobiana, and second-row Andrés Pacheco (Alcobendas Rugby) are members of a strong pack, that includes France-based tight-head Jon Zabala (Bayonne, pictured) and hooker Tommy Vaysset (Beziers).
The backs will be spearheaded by scrum-half Jaime Mata (CRC Pozuelo) and fly-half Álvar Gimeno (Cisneros). Other players to watch are centres Iñaki Mateu (Alcobendas Rugby), Jordi Jorbá (USAP Perpignan) and Andrea Rábago (Stade Dijonnais).
“The team will be full of hope and enthusiasm. We’ve worked very hard all year to be ready and we believe we are well prepared both in attack and defence for a challenge such as the Trophy,” said Santos, who played 45 tests at hooker in the 1980s and early 90s.
Open expansive rugby is what Spain will bring to Zimbabwe. “We want to be strong in our ball-winning capacity and defensively solid but with the ball in hand we want to enjoy ourselves,” he added.
Santos, meanwhile, praised the groundwork that has gone into getting Spain to this level.
“Many clubs, coaches and players have worked hard to raise the standard of rugby. The Spanish Federation is doing good work, investing time and effort in the future stars, and the benefits are clear for all to see.”
Photo credit: Federación Española de Rugby