Nothing would have seemed more fanciful than the thought of playing in a Rugby World Cup when Brad Linklater was struggling to make the premier grade in Auckland club rugby, let alone follow his brother Scott, a Maori All Blacks hooker, into Super Rugby with the Chiefs.
But the prospect of appearing on the biggest stage of them all is now very real with the New Zealander's adopted country Spain in contention to claim one of the remaining tickets to Japan 2019. For any rugby player, especially those well into their 30s, to know that your best days on the pitch may still be ahead of you is a brilliant position to be in.
“Just thinking about the possibility of being there feels really good and puts bumps on my skin. There’s a lot of players in the squad who are around their 30s and getting close to the point where we’re thinking of hanging up our boots, so it’s time to throw everything at this chance we’ve got and have no regrets,” the 32-year-old said.
Having completed the first half of the RWC 2019 qualification process with wins over Russia, Germany and Belgium in last year's Rugby Europe Championship, Spain are on course for a play-off against Rugby Europe Trophy champions Portugal. The winners of that game then face a two-legged meeting with Samoa in June, for the right to slot into Pool A as the Play-Off Winner. Even then, the four-team global repechage could offer salvation.
Click HERE for more on the European qualification process
However, with only two points between themselves and Romania, who they meet in a potentially pivotal game on 18 February, Madrid-based Linklater refuses to write off Spain’s chances of securing the automatic Europe 1 qualification spot, reserved for the best-ranked side other than the pre-qualified Georgia.
“The first two games are the two biggest and we are only thinking about them at the moment,” he said. “Russia in Russia is going to be incredibly difficult in their conditions, and from what I’ve heard they have prepared really well. Then we’ve got to try and beat Romania in Madrid.
“If we win those two games, which we think is possible, it almost gives us a clear run through to automatic qualification to the World Cup. if we lose one of those, we’ve still got to make sure we win the rest – and the likes of Germany are no easy-beats – to get the points we need to confirm our spot in the play-offs.”
When Spain last played in a Rugby World Cup in 1999 its probably fair to say that Ian Jones, a local Whangarei hero and All Blacks legend, captured the imagination of a then 14-year-old Linklater more than any of the players clad in red and blue. But the soon-to-be-qualified PE teacher, who’s married to a girl from Bilbao, is understandably delighted with the way things have turned out for him.
Linklater finished the 2017 Rugby Europe Championship as top points scorer with 51 and is now only 14 points shy of becoming the third Spain player to reach 200 test points. He has won 22 caps to date.
“I came over to Spain seven years ago. One of my team-mates back home was looking around for an opportunity overseas and he asked a guy called Bryce Bevin, the former Spanish coach from Auckland, who was coaching Getxo Artea (in northern Spain) if they needed a number eight. He said we don’t need a number eight, but we do need a full-back. As I wasn’t cracking it at home at the time, I decided to give it a go,” he explained.
“My international debut was delayed by a few games because I got pneumonia while training with the squad, but a skinnier version of myself eventually ran out for the first time against Georgia, in 2015.
“Every time I play for Spain I enjoy it because I'm playing with a bunch of guys that are really serious about what they are doing and are really talented as well.
“As an attacking group our instinct is to try and keep the ball alive and play at a fast tempo. When we’re able to keep hold of the ball we put teams under pressure. We were even leading Georgia at half-time.
“With a lot of our players being based in France, our problem is getting enough time together to work on defensive structures and things like that.
“The Federation try and do everything they can and the clubs in Spain have been lenient (in terms of player release) to try and help us out. But we normally only get four or five days together before a game, and that’s why, in big games, we sometimes drop off in key areas.”
For Spain and Linklater, they don't come much bigger than the game in Krasnodar in a fortnight's time.