Fondly remembered for his teary interview in Monaco after leading Spain to a dramatic win that took them to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the world's biggest sporting event has a massive emotional pull for former Los Leones sevens captain turned head coach Pablo Feijoo. If someone understands the meaning of being an Olympian it is him.
But while Feijoo would love to experience the Games again, at Tokyo in 2020, his first priority is to ensure Spain retain their place as a core team on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series for another year. Only then, will Feijoo allow himself to shift focus.
After a mixed showing in the series opener in Dubai, Los Leones Sevens bounced back to deliver their best tournament finish of sixth in Cape Town, the 12 points accrued taking their overall tally to 17.
Limited player pool
“Our stated goal is to fight to stay in the series. Despite two good tournaments in Dubai and Cape Town, we don’t have players to drip into the sevens structure to aim to play higher,” he explained.
Last year his team was blessed in that he only had two players injured. “If we have more, it could be a huge issue as we don’t have a big player base. In saying this, we have to get as many tournament points as we can to avoid dropping from the series.”
Dubai opened with two big defeats against eventual finalists, the USA and New Zealand, followed by important wins against Wales and Kenya.
“We had good games but in the final game against Samoa we lost concentration," he recalls.
A week later, Feijoo was delighted with the attitude his side showed in Cape Town.
"We were competitive in every game except against Fiji (a 46-7 quarter-final defeat). In the other games, we took it to the opposition.”
Wins against Argentina and Japan put Spain up against the Olympic champions before they closed with a win against Scotland and a narrow loss to England in the fifth-place play-off.
Better than 2018
This first part of the season has left them in ninth place, well clear of the bottom of the table, as they prepare to head to Australasia for the next two rounds in Hamilton and Sydney. But Feijoo is mindful that a team's fortunes can change very quickly in sevens.
“Hamilton and Sydney were our worst tournaments last year, as we finished last in both. The weather and the jet lag were things that took its toll. This year we’ve had a camp between Christmas and New Year’s Eve to ensure the players stay focused.”
That focus will be put to the test this week when Spain host the rising Ireland sevens team in Madrid. After that, they will arrive with ample time to adapt to conditions in New Zealand.
“We don’t have an easy pool. Canada have put their issues behind them and will be very hard; Japan is learning fast as a new team and New Zealand at home …”
Again, the goal will be to earn as many series points to stay as far as possible from the relegation trapdoor.
Feijoo’s rugby pedigree is second to none. Hailing from San Sebastián, he played more than 300 games for Spain in sevens and has 66 test caps to his name in 15s. A full-time coach, he works with 14 players contracted by the Spanish Rugby Federation. “They are not big (financial) contracts," he points out. "Players study and work as well as playing rugby.”
Tough road to Tokyo
The Spanish Olympic Committee plays a big role in these contracts, for which Tokyo 2020 is not out of the picture.
“The Olympic Games gives Spain Sevens a structure; competition comes from the series and that is where we need to be as we compete all year long. To ensure sevens grows, we have to stay in the series,” says Feijoo.
“If we manage that, we will be able to think about the Olympic Games. With the season over, we will focus on the qualifying process, which is probably the toughest in the world, with Great Britain, Russia, France, Ireland, Portugal and us all vying for a place. The European process will be very tough.”
For the time being, the focus will be first on Ireland and then on the trip to New Zealand and Australia.