Spain coach José Antonio Barrio remembers only too well the moment he knew his team had secured the final place for rugby sevens’ debut at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
It came 30 seconds from the end of the global women’s repechage in Dublin last month when, with Spain leading 19-12, the Russians lost the ball and a scrum was called.
“It was a great feeling,” Barrio recalled of those final few seconds.
“A huge happiness for the enormous effort done by the girls. Rugby is very kind and repays all your hard work … rugby is fair. Winning the repechage for Río was that.
His captain Elisabet Martínez, who had been subbed off a couple of minutes earlier, remembers it a little differently to her coach.
“I knew we would win the final game against Russia and we’d go to Rio when we were warming up,” she said. “I saw my team-mates’ faces, their hunger, their eyes and knew there and then that we would win it.
TEARS OF JOY
“After the game I cried a lot … a lot more than Pablo Feijoo,” she says, smiling in reference to her male counterpart whose emotional after Spain won the men’s repechage in Monaco spoke volumes about what Olympic qualification means to players.
“After we won, I embraced my team-mates, friends and family that came in droves to support us in Dublin.”
Barrio believes his team “peaked at the right time as we had adjusted our preparation” after finishing the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series with two Cup quarter-final appearances in Langford and Clermont-Ferrand to finish ninth in the overall standings.
“Mentally we were ready all week. The girls competed very well and even if our focus was on Russia and Ireland we knew that on Sunday a bad game could blow away our dream.”
Spain did struggle a little in the opening exchanges of their quarter-final with China on day two, but found their poise and booked their place in the final without conceding a single point in also seeing off the challenge of Tunisia, Venezuela, Mexico and Kazakhstan.
Their victory over Russia left them with little over a month to fine-tune their preparations for Rio 2016.
“The week after Dublin which we had off, was very strange as I had many media engagements,” recalled Martínez. “It showed how big our achievement was. Ensuring our profile grew was part of our job, letting people know what we had done. It helps to promote the game of rugby.”
On returning to work, the squad spent a few days in Madrid and then moved to Getxo, in the Basque Country Pyrenees.Before flying to Brazil they will finish their preparations at the seaside, imitating the weather and humidity conditions they will find at the Games.
Their recent good performances help them to set high goals and Barrio believes his team can qualify for the quarter-finals and then obtain at least an Olympic diploma by finishing in the top eight.
“Our team will be hard to beat. France and New Zealand will be very hard in their own way and I am sure Kenya will have become better after playing in Clermont,” he said.
Martínez, who plays for GEiEG, added: “We should have a good tournament and a diploma would help us keep our stipends from the Consejo Superior del Deporte and the Spanish Olympic Committee.”
A CATALYST FOR GROWTH
They both fully understand the importance of sevens being on the Olympic programme in Rio.
“It will be a turning point for rugby in Spain, everybody follows the Olympic Games and support the lesser known sports,” explained Barrio.
“We are convinced that rugby will be one of the best sports in the Games and that will be a huge push for the growth of the sport in our country.”
The draw has given Spain’s women the honour of playing in the first Olympic sevens match, against France, at the Deodoro Stadium on 6 August, something which will be a moment to savour for Martínez.
“Opening the Games is a huge thing, history in the making. Having this opportunity is an honour that makes us very happy, it gives us more to aim for.
Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan