Spanish rugby is bracing for a busy end of February, with 12 national sevens teams descending on the capital for the Madrid Sevens high performance event and Las Leonas facing two key games on their quest to reach Rugby World Cup 2021 in New Zealand.

Having finished tenth in Ireland 2017 four years ago, Las Leonas failed to secure their direct ticket and now have to navigate the difficult waters of the qualifying process.

This means they will face Russia on 20 February and the Netherlands a week later in the Women’s Rugby Europe Championship, both games at the Estadio Pedro Escartín in Guadalajara. If they advance, they will join Ireland, Italy and Scotland in the Rugby Europe RWC 2021 qualifier. The winner of this tournament will qualify directly to RWC 2021 and the runner-up will enter the four-team Final Qualification Tournament.

Although the dream for Spain is New Zealand, for José Antonio Barro’s team the goal is immediate and that is beating Russia. Having just finished a two-week training camp in a sanitary bubble in Valladolid, the team should be ready for Russia, who previously beat the Dutch 27-21.

“If all goes to plan we would have been working for six weeks ahead of the two games,” says Barros. “We are in a good place but the pressure is on as we can’t lose with Russia if we want to stay in the hunt.”

Although Las Leonas record against the Russians is positive, he is adamant that this counts for nothing.

“We have to be careful as we have no information, only that they prepared in Sochi and have been playing sevens, although we don’t know if they will have all their sevens players available.” A Russian team will be competing at the Madrid Sevens – the same weekend of the test. “Lack of knowledge will be a factor,” says Barros.

The need to win this game and the following is not lost on the Spanish team, who will be at home.

Barros has been putting together a team since the end of the previous Rugby World Cup.

“We’ve been creating a young team since Ireland. We had beaten Scotland and Wales and done our homework in 2019. Now it is a different situation, with new variables and preparation affected by COVID-19.”

Whilst there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel, it is trying to stay as safe as possible and the sanitary issue is huge. “We’ve had girls with COVID-19; because of this, our training camp was in a bubble and we’ll have that for the test weeks,” confirms Barros.

As much as fitness is important, the long-time coach says “the pandemic evens things out from a mental state teams can be in.”

But more importantly, he says, “it has been a lesson at every level – and rugby is a representation of life. I want to think that it taught us to relativise everything. Our values scale is now different and we must pay attention to what is really important.

“We now enjoy each training session as if it was to be the last, when before it was part of a load. It is great to be able to enjoy what we love after so many months away from life and rugby.”

After the failed camps in September (positive COVID-19 cases meant it had to be closed) and November (also cancelled), followed a practice game in December and international players involved in the local tournament in January.

Although the Madrid Sevens is on at the same time, with no hope of going to the Tokyo Olympic Games the stars of the shortened game will be available for the RWC 2021 qualifying games. The benefit is two-fold: introducing young players to the sevens squad and “allowing players that normally played both formats to focus on fifteens,” says Barros.

“And we are developing new players for the international stage.”

Spain v Russia can be live-streamed at 4pm CET on 20 February here.

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