Sunshine rugby on the Costa Blanca

The Spanish play rugby! Who knew? In this football-obsessed country, rugby union is so far down the sport pecking order you’d be forgiven for failing to notice it at all. But here in Villajoyosa, rugby is alive and kicking.

CR La Vila is actually one of the dozen best teams in Spain and a home game at their stadium is a great way of spending a Sunday afternoon.
La Vila celebrating their first victory of 2017
It costs just €5 to see a match at the Estadio del Pantano, a few minutes drive out of town on the road inland to Orxeta. Kids under 12 get in free. The ground is surprisingly modern; I’m guessing more than a few clubs back in the UK would love the facilities they have here.
The crowd is usually a friendly mix of local rugby fans and expat or tourist Brits getting their rugby fix. Buy yourself a beer or something off the barbecue and enjoy the match. For UK rugby followers, watching a game here in the sunshine certainly beats the biting wind and driving rain back home. And the quality of the rugby not bad either.

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The first team, a mixture of home grown players with a sprinkling of overseas talent, plays in the top flight of Spanish rugby, the División de Honor. 
Competing in the big league hasn’t been easy: La Vila were newly promoted in 2017/8,  but they managed to survive and they kick off the 2018/9 season in the top flight once again. Check how they’re doing here. Find the fixture list here or follow the club on Facebook here.
Clearly rugby is never going to take the place of football – or even basketball – in the heart of your average Spanish sports fan.  The Spanish movie star Javier Bardem, who was a rugby player in his younger days and even made it into the national team, was once quoted as saying; “being a rugby player in Spain is like being a bullfighter in Japan”. He had a point.
But the game has a firm footing here; the 2018 European Champions Cup final was held in Bilbao.
The national men’s side – Los Leones plays in the second tier of European rugby, one below the Six Nations, against the likes of Russia and Georgia. In March 2018, they came within an ace of qualifying directly for the 2019 World Cup. They only had to beat Belgium to secure a place, but lost 18-10 in a match littered with inexplicable refereeing decisions. Romania qualified instead. The referee and his assistants  were… Romanian! Cue well-justified outrage from Spanish rugby.
World Rugby got involved and an inquiry was ordered. Astonishingly though, it found nothing wrong with the refereeing. Instead Spain (and Romania) were disqualified for fielding ineligible players. A genuine WTF moment.
The Spanish women’s team – Las Leonas – went to the 2017 World Cup in Ireland. They finished third in their group, managing a good win against Italy, but suffered heavy defeats at the hands of England and the USA. They won the Rugby Europe championship (one step below the Six Nations) in March 2018 and are ranked 10th in the world.
CR La Vila runs teams for women and a range of age groups, as well as hosting an international sevens tournament at the end of the season.
© Guy Pelham 2018

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