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 – quite something for a little town like ours – and a home game at their stadium is a great way of spending a Sunday afternoon.
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 fans and expat or tourist Brits getting their rugby fix. Buy yourself a beer or something off the barbecue and enjoy the match.
For British rugby watchers, a game in the sunshine of La Vila certainly beats the biting wind and driving rain back home. And the quality of the rugby is not bad either.
The first team, a mixture of home grown players with a sprinkling of overseas talent, mostly from Argentina, 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 and struggled to survive in their first season in the top flight, but they managed to avoid the drop. That’s pretty good going for a team from this far south in Spain, a long way from the rugby heartlands of the Basque Country and Cataluña
However, things haven’t been going too well in 2019: La Vila face an end of season play-off to stay in the División de Honor.
Check how they’re doing here or follow the club on their website here or 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, in the heartland of Spanish rugby. Spain’s 7s team even managed to beat the mighty All Blacks in a World Rugby Sevens Series match in March 2019: La Vila’s Javier Carrion was in the side.
Los Leones play in the second tier of European rugby, one below the Six Nations, against the likes of Russia and Georgia. This season, they finished second to Georgia, but in March 2018, they came within an ace of qualifying for the 2019 World Cup.
They were denied, in their final qualifying match against Belgium, by the worst display of refereeing I have ever seen. In any sport. Here’s the thing – if Spain lost, Romania would qualify for the World Cup. The referee and his assistants were – you guessed it – Romanian. As is the president of Rugby Europe.
Spain did lose, 10-18 (to put that in context, they’d hammered Belgium in the first leg 30-0 and they hammered them again 47-9 in March 2019).
The inquiry that followed was, frankly, an absolute farce. Both Spain and Romania were banned for fielding ineligible players – nothing whatsoever to do with the refereeing scandal that prompted the inquiry in the first place. Baffled? Me too.
To add insult to injury, five Spanish players who protested against the referee after the final whistle were banned for a total of 121 weeks. And this is how the bosses of world rugby expect to grow the sport in Spain? Don’t make me laugh!
The Spanish women’s team – Las Leonas – have fared rather better. They won the Rugby Europe championship (one step below the Six Nations) in March 2019 and are 9th in the world, some distance ahead of the men (ranked 19th). La Vila staged two internationals in autumn 2018, against South Africa and Hong Kong. Happily Las Leonas won both.
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.
If you are ever in a Spanish rugby conversation, here are a few words to help you through…one or two might be the Argentinian equivalents. If I’ve got any wrong, feel free to leave a note in comments!
Three quarters/backs: tres cuartos
Lineout: lineout/el touche
Penalty: puntapié de castigo
Penalty try: ensayo de castigo
Yellow/red card: tarjeta roja/amarilla
Knock on: knock-on
Forward pass: avant/pase forward/ pase hacia adelante