Spain’s only previous experience of the World Rugby U20 Trophy before this year had ended with a heartbreaking, sudden-death 38-32 defeat to Samoa in the 2016 final.

But this time they were not to be denied, although their supporters inside the Nyayo National Stadium in Nairobi would have feared the worst when Uruguay, the team that stood before them and promotion to the World Rugby U20 Championship, opened up a 15-0 lead inside the first 12 minutes of a breathtaking final.

Spain recovered brilliantly to score 24 unanswered points and lead by nine at half-time, but that cushion was cut to just four points, not once but twice, in a brilliant second half that went one way and then the other.

Even when Diego Gonzalez Blanco scored their fifth try, the game was not up because Marcel Sirvent Sanso’s missed conversion gave Los Teros a glimmer of hope that they could take Spain back to a painful place – extra time.

However, the European champions managed the last few minutes brilliantly, to hold on and celebrate a 39-32 victory that catapults them into the company of the best teams in international age-grade rugby.

The seeds of success

Spain’s journey to the World Rugby U20 Trophy 2023 had begun back in November when they became the first team to qualify after successfully defending their Rugby Europe U20 Championship title with a narrow 13-6 victory over the Netherlands.

While Spain would have a new head coach for the U20 Trophy in former Argentina international, Raúl Perez, there was continuity in terms of the playing personnel with 12 of the match-day squad in the Rugby Europe Championship final making it to Nairobi.

Among those was hooker Alvaro Garcia Albo, the young man who led Spain to victory in the final against Uruguay. As he was born in August 2003, the Stade Français hooker won’t get to personally experience the U20 Championship himself but if anything, he said, knowing that this was his swansong added to the sense of occasion.

“For all the team and the staff, it fills us with great pride and satisfaction after all the hard work since we came together for the U20 European Championship,” he said, shortly after lifting the trophy amid jubilant scenes in Nairobi.

"It was the most emotional game I’ve played. Many of us are no longer eligible for the U20s so this game was the last of a long process of hard work that began in January."

While Spain’s first game of the U20 Trophy campaign was anything but hard work – they breezed past Hong Kong China 53-0, their remaining three games were all challenging in their own right.

Garcia Albo got his name on the scoresheet against Hong Kong China, in what was a record win in the competition for Spain, but it was classy outside backs, Eloy de la Pisa Cuadrado and Gabriel Rocaries who caught the eye with two tries apiece.

Spain finished the game with 14 players after Ignacio Piñeiro Molla was yellow-carded but, by and large, they were one of the more disciplined teams in a competition where the referees frequently reached inside their pocket.

Spain took a while to get into their stride against Kenya in round two but having only led 17-15 at half-time, they went on to win 48-18.

Garcia Albo came off the bench to score a second try of the tournament, while there was another try double for Rocaries and also two tries for Diego Gonzalez Blanco.

With a dominant pack, a brilliant crash-ball centre in Daniel Catanzaro Omati and outside backs who thrived off quick ball, Spain had the makings of a title-winning team.

But first, they had to get past Samoa, and any lingering demons from the defeat in 2016, even if none of those involved in the Pool B decider were anywhere near Harare seven years ago.

Samoa’s unstructured and ill-disciplined approach unsettled Spain at times but they came through the test to win 28-10.

“At times we fell into their game, but we were able to organise ourselves and we were able to get the win which was the important thing,” said Perez.

Maturing as a team

Spain’s best-laid plans to get off to a good start against Uruguay in the final came unstuck within 45 seconds of the first whistle as influential scrum-half, Pablo Perez Merono – Spain’s captain in the European showpiece match against the Netherlands – was sent to the bin for tackling players without the ball on two separate occasions.

Uruguay ruthlessly punished Spain to the tune of 15 points but their response was sensational, producing attacking rugby that had shades of the French flair that took Les Bleuets to their third U20 Championship title. A match-up between those two at next year’s elite level tournament would be one to savour.

While leaking five tries at the other end, Spain’s resilience at the breakdown allowed them to win crucial turnovers at key moments to just about keep Uruguay at bay and ensure they didn’t fall at the final hurdle as they did in 2016.

"The best thing about this win is that they (the players) have grown since they started working in the European Championship to qualify for the Trophy. They have matured and grown and that is what we are most satisfied with, beyond the win,” said coach Perez.

“We started on a road and this is proof that the one taken is the right one. Now we must enjoy this, and tomorrow we work towards the future.

“This doesn’t finish with this group of players.”