A large and appreciative crowd at the Estadio Nacional Universidad Complutense watched on as Spain seized the initiative in the race for one of the two automatic qualification places at Rugby World Cup 2023 with victory over their closest rivals Romania.

Spain went into the match top of the Rugby Europe Championship 2022 table but third in the overall qualification standings behind Georgia and Romania so a win was vital for both sides.

And it was Los Leones who came away with the victory, although a stunning late try from Romania’s electric winger, Marius Simionescu, denied them what could be an important try bonus point.

Georgia still lead the qualification race on 31 points, Spain move up to second on 25 points with Romania third on 22 points.

Meanwhile, Portugal kept alive their hopes of making it to a second Rugby World Cup with a 59-3 win against the Netherlands which puts them on 21 points overall.

The teams in first and second place at the end of the two-year qualification cycle (results from Rugby Europe Championship 2021 and 2022) will automatically go to France 2023 as Europe 1 and Europe 2, while the third-place team will enter into the Final Qualification Tournament.

Spain hit the ground running

With wins against the bottom two teams the Netherlands and Russia behind them, Spain faced what appeared on paper to be an altogether tougher challenge in Romania who went into the game on the back of a five-match winning run.

However Los Leones set about their task from the off and raced into a 14-0 lead with just 12 minutes gone thanks to tries from Marco Pinto and Matthew Foulds, Manuel Ordas converting both.

Spain’s momentum was temporarily halted when Afa Tauli was sent to the sin-bin and Romania took advantage to score through Hickley Vaovasa, Ionel Melinte converting to reduce the deficit to seven points.

Spain managed to cancel out that score when Fernando Martin Lopez burrowed over from close range and Ordas added the extras.

Once restored to their full complement of players, Spain further increased their lead when Alvar Gimeno picked off a Romania pass on halfway and raced home for Los Leones’ fourth try. The unfailing boot of Ordas turned the five points into seven with the conversion.

Ordas kicked a penalty and then converted a try from Fred Quercy as Spain stormed into a 38-7 lead at the end of the third quarter.

However, Romania showed great resolve to finish the match on a high note, Vaovasa crossing for his second and Simionescu adding a stunning solo effort while Spain defended with 14 men due to a yellow card for Manuel Mora. Daniel Plai converted both tries.

While those late tries denied Spain maximum points from the fixture, the winning margin was sufficient for the sides to swap places in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings powered by Capgemini.

Spain are now at a record high of 15th with Romania two places below them.

Record win for Portugal against Dutch

In the other Rugby Europe Championship 2022 fixture, Pedro Bettencourt announced his return to the Portuguese starting back division for the first time in nearly six years with a brace of tries against the Netherlands in Lisbon.

Rafael Simoes also helped himself to a couple and they were joined on the scoreboard by João Belo, Duarte Diniz, Rodrigo Marta, Raffaele Storti and Dany Antunes in what was Portugal’s biggest win in 52 years of playing against the Dutch.

The Netherlands actually took the lead through a second-minute penalty from Te Campbell but that was as good as it got for the bottom-of-the-table side.

Neither sides’ ranking was affected by the result.

The next set of Rugby Europe Championship 2202 fixtures are scheduled for 12 March when Romania host Georgia and Spain take on Portugal.

Rugby Europe Championship 2022 rounds off the following weekend in what should be a thrilling conclusion to the qualification race.

Read more: “I have so much belief in this exciting group of players” – Spain’s coach Santos ahead of historic Romania meeting >>