Three successive Rugby Europe Championship wins have reignited Spain’s hopes of qualifying for a first Rugby World Cup since 1999, but Los Leones are taking nothing for granted as they prepare to face Russia in Sochi.
Spain endured a difficult start to the 2021 Rugby Europe Championship, losing at home to Georgia before suffering away defeats against Romania and Portugal.
With the top two nations in the combined 2021 and 2022 Rugby Europe Championship standings guaranteeing their place at Rugby World Cup 2023 it left Santiago Santos’ side playing catch-up.
However, Los Leones kick-started their campaign with a 49-12 win over Russia in Madrid last November before back-to-back victories against the Netherlands – all secured with a bonus point – lifted them into third ahead of this weekend’s matches.
Finishing third in the combined standings would provide a route to the RWC 2023 Final Qualification Tournament, but Santos and his players have their sights set on earning an automatic spot in France.
“We’re confident, we’re happy,” the Spain coach told World Rugby. “Of course, we had a poor start to qualifying, with three losses.
“But now three wins put us in the race again and I'm looking forward to this weekend against Russia.”
Spain have not lost to Russia since a 22-20 reverse in Sochi six years ago, but Santos expects the RWC 2019 participants to be a tougher proposition under new coach Dick Muir.
That is why, despite having matches against Romania, Portugal and Georgia on the horizon, the Spain coach is refusing to look further ahead than Saturday.
“We know that they are starting a new cycle, they have changed their coach,” he said.
“There are a lot of new faces in the team and we know that the game is going to be very, very different to the last game in Madrid.
“I’m sure there's going to be a new attacking philosophy, a new defensive philosophy, so it's going to be a challenge.”
Santos added: “I’m confident in this Spanish team, I think that we have the quality. Of course, the other teams have too but for me, the most difficult game is the next game against Russia in Russia.
“All the games are very difficult but I'm very happy that we will play Romania at home in Madrid and Portugal in Madrid.
“I think that could be a crucial factor in order to go [to RWC 2023], to play Romania and Portugal at home.
“So, for this reason, this game against Russia in Russia, for me, is probably the toughest game that we have ahead.”
Becoming more disciplined
Centre Alvar Gimeno scored one of Spain’s seven tries when they last met Russia and he crossed the whitewash in both victories against the Netherlands as well.
However, Gimeno spent 10 minutes in the sin-bin in Madrid last November, and was shown a red card during the 52-7 defeat of the Netherlands in Amsterdam a month later.
The World Rugby U20 Trophy graduate has since been working on his discipline, with former World Rugby 15s High Performance Match Official Manager Alain Rolland invited into Spain camp to work with the squad.
“I’m happy with my performance, but I’m not happy because in the last game (of 2021) I took a red card against the Netherlands.
“My discipline is getting better. I didn't [give away] any penalties against the Netherlands, and I had a big performance with good carries, good tackles and two turnovers. So, that’s all right, I'm happy about that,” Gimeno said.
“Me and all the team we worked really hard with Alain Rolland.
“He helped all the team and fortunately, he helped me [with] little details that I have to improve. So, I think I'm getting better in the discipline.”
Santos said: “Discipline is crucial if we want to qualify. Last year we had a few problems with discipline, and we are aware that it’s an area of improvement.
“It's a very important area of the game and we want to get the penalty count low.”
Should Spain win in Sochi on Saturday then they will put themselves in a good position to secure qualification for a second Rugby World Cup.
Both Gimeno and Santos agreed that it would be an amazing achievement to lead their country across the border to next year’s tournament in France.
“Wow!” Gimeno said. “It would be a dream to go to Rugby World Cup, to play in France and just put Spain in the position that we have to be.”
(Photos: Walter Degirolmo - Spanish Rugby)