Since they arrived in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo last Friday, the 30-player Spain men’s squad have been wrapped in a COVID-19 free bubble awaiting the first of what will no doubt be two pivotal fixtures for the side.
Coached by Santiago Santos in his seventh season at the helm, Los Leones will play against Uruguay on 1 and 6 November at the Charrúa Stadium.
The Spanish national team, with seven uncapped players and a further 14 with 10 or fewer caps, will be looking to hand out much needed international experience, with one eye firmly set on the ultimate goal: qualifying for Rugby World Cup 2023.
Spain’s only Rugby World Cup was in 1999, when they played Uruguay, South Africa and Scotland in three losses.
“If I compare with where we were at this moment in time in the previous cycle four years ago, we are in a much better place," said Santos, ahead of the trip to Uruguay.
Reflecting on that crucial match against Belgium that could have seen Spain on the plane to Rugby World Cup 2019, Santos is clear that it has now been put to bed by him and the squad: "The game against Belgium is in the past; we only look to the future".
And it is in that future that the focus is aimed at: “We want to see new players in the international arena," he explains.
Andrés Alvarado, Joel Merkler and Leandro Wozniak are three props that will be competing for positions with José Díaz (two caps), Joaquín Domínguez and Bittor Aboitiz (both with one cap each) to start in the front-row.
“We also have three fly-halves – uncapped Bautista Güemes, Gonzalo Vinuesa, who is only 19, and David Melé has returned to the team.”
“At scrum-half we have selected Biarritz Olympique's Kerman Aurrekoetxea. He is not yet the finished product but he has a huge potential," says Santos.
There will also be new caps in the centres, as only Andrea Rabago has been capped before. Diego Peirel is a former U20 international and has represented Spain in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, while Daniel Barranco is a former U20 captain.
“We want to see them at a higher level and how they react.”
Unsurprisingly, Spanish rugby has had a fairly empty schedule for much of this year. The final of the Copa del Rey de Rugby was played only two weeks ago, in what was also the first official game of the new domestic season.
“The lack of activity has affected us in a very negative way, as playing games is very important,” says Santos. “We acknowledge this and work to ensure we are as ready as we can be.
“Most of the players have only played once, if at all, since the beginning of March."
Yet this period of no rugby allowed Santos and his staff to study in World Rugby and Federación Española de Rugby’s webinars.
“We also did a lot of analysis of the teams that are our models, learning from the best.”
Asked who these teams would be, he did not hesitate.
“We like Japan very much. It is a team that coming from Tier 2 has been able to compete with the best; they are a mirror. We like the rugby they play.”
Spain will therefore be aiming to play a similar brand of rugby to the Rugby World Cup 2019 hosts, who themselves are already qualified for France 2023. “We are talking about rugby played at speed, moving the ball around, with little kicking and attacking from everywhere.
“This style fits our philosophy and player profile.”
Needless to say, the ultimate goal for Los Leones is to qualify for Rugby World Cup 2023. To do so, they will have to successfully navigate the tough Rugby Europe Championship against the likes of Georgia, Romania and Russia. "We mustn't underestimate Portugal or Belgium, who will also be hard to beat,” says Santos.
Spain were in South America last year and flew home with three wins: 22-16 against Brazil, 29-22 against Chile, and a solid and well-deserved victory over Uruguay, 41-21.
“These two games will allow us to continue working on our model – both attack and defence. And we'll be able to try new players at a higher level,” Santos repeats, supporting the importance of the tour.
Focusing on development is something Spain will not have the luxury of in the Rugby Europe Championship.
“There it is about killing or being killed; there is no time to try things out. In theory it will be a two-year qualifying road, but with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we are unsure whether the qualifying system will be affected. It is what we know at the moment.”
Spain had a scheduled Rugby Europe Championship 2020 match against Portugal in the calendar for November. However, Europe Rugby has since cancelled all of its international competitions due to the pandemic.
This gives the Uruguay trip an even greater importance, helping Spain to be ready for "February or March, when we start competing for that trip to France in 2023.
“Being able to be back on a rugby field is nice,” says Santos. “We love the game, we love to play, and not being able to do so meant these were difficult months.”