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/La Vila Joiosa, just up the coast from Alicante, rugby is alive and kicking.
CR La Vila is actually one of the best teams in Spain – quite something for a little town like ours. Watch a home game at their stadium; it’s a great way of spending a Sunday afternoon.
La Vila compete in the top league of Spanish rugby. the División de Honor, though hey didn’t have a great season last year. They only won four times in total and finished second from bottom.
They were in serious danger of relegation via the end-of-season playoffs, but salvation came unexpectedly. The Madrid club Alcobendas were demoted instead because of the Spain World Cup scandal (more on this below).
La Vila play home games at el Estadio del Pantano, a few minutes drive out of town on the road inland to Orxeta. Tickets are €15 (€10 online) and kids under 16 get in free.
The stadium and the next-door sports centre are great. 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 supporters and expat or tourist Brits – plus a few French fans – getting their rugby fix. Buy yourself a beer or something from the barbecue and enjoy the match.
For British fans, watching rugby on the Costa Blanca in warm sunshine certainly beats the biting wind and driving rain back home. And the quality isn’t bad either.
The mens’ first team is a mixture of home grown players with a sprinkling of overseas talent, mostly from South America.
To compete in the top division of Spanish rugby is quite an achievement – CR La Vila doesn’t have the wealthy sponsors of some big city clubs. And here in La Vila Joiosa, we’re a long way from the rugby heartlands in the north of Spain.
La Vila run women’s teams and squads for a whole range of age groups, so it’s a real community club. And La Vila hosted a European beach rugby tournament on the town’s Playa Centro in July 2022 – cool video 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 played rugby himself in his younger days, was once quoted as saying; “being a rugby player in Spain is like being a bullfighter in Japan”. He had a point.
The World Cup scandal
A massive sore point with Spanish rugby fans right now. Let me explain. In March 2022, the men’s national team (Los Leones) qualified for the rugby World Cup for only the second time in their history. See the celebrations here.
But the joy didn’t last long. Romania accused Spain of fielding an ineligible player, the South Africa-born prop Gavin van den Berg, in two matches. World Rugby held an inquiry, found Spain guilty, deducted them 10 points and hit them with a big fine. Spain were out of the World Cup and Romania took their place.
Astonishingly, this is the second time in successive World Cup campaigns that Spain have been found guilty of breaking the rules on player eligibility. Unbelievable!
Spain appealed against their World Cup disqualification but predictably, World Rugby came back with a big fat ‘no’ at the end of June 2022 – more here.
Van den Berg’s club, Alcobendas of Madrid, were accused of falsifying a copy of his passport, allegedly without his knowledge.
The case hinged around the amount of time van den Berg had spent in Spain to qualify as a Spanish international. It’s supposed to be three years, with the player spending at least 10 months a year in his/her new country. Social media posts apparently showed van den Berg in South Africa when he was supposed to be in Spain.
Alcobendas were demoted from the Division de Honor, kicked out of the Copa del Rey and fined. The president of Spanish rugby resigned.
And that, we all thought, was that. But no! In early August 2022, there was yet another twist.
Alcobendas appealed to the Tribunal Administrativo de Deporte. Astonishingly, the TAD quashed all the sanctions against the club. Basically, it ruled that Alcobendas as a club should not be punished for the actions of individuals involved in falsifying the documents.
So the club gets off scot-free – though the individuals could still face prosecution. It now looks as if FER, which runs rugby in Spain, will expand the División de Honor to re-admit Alcobendas next season. You can imagine the fixture chaos. What a shambles.
Spain in the world rankings
Up until this point, you could say men’s rugby was a growing sport here. Los Leones are ranked 15 in the world, only one place behind Italy of the Six Nations.
Spain play in the second tier of European rugby against the likes of Georgia (easily the strongest side) Belgium, Portugal, Romania and – until the Ukraine invasion – Russia. Belgium, Germany and Poland will join this coming season.
Spain has a decent men’s Sevens team too. They’ve competed at the Olympics and even managed to beat the mighty All Blacks in a World Rugby Sevens Series match in March 2019. Highlights here are worth a watch – the Spanish players look as if they can’t quite believe it! And they also won the Rugby Europe Sevens championship in June 2022 – celebrations here.
The Spanish women’s team – Las Leonas – are officially ranked 10th in the world. That’s higher than the men and ahead of top rugby countries like Wales and South Africa. Sadly, Las Leonas didn’t manage to qualify for the World Cup in New Zealand in 2022.
They’re currently leading the Rugby Europe championship, but as it’s a three-cornered tournament with Russia and the Netherlands, who knows what will happen after the Ukraine crisis.
The Super Cup started last season (2021-2) and it involves new franchised teams competing across Europe under the umbrella of Rugby Europe. There is one Spanish team involved; a newly-created franchise called Castilla y Léon Iberians, made up of players from the two Valladolid clubs (VRAC and El Salvador) plus Burgos.
They’re competing against teams from Portugal (Los Lusitanos), Belgium (Brussels Devils) and Holland (Delta) in the western conference. There’s an eastern conference with clubs from Georgia (Black Lion and RC Batumi), Israel (Tel Aviv) and Romania (Wolves). Russia were kicked out after the Ukraine invasion.
The whole thing is a knockout competition designed to raise the level of the club game in European countries outside the Six Nations.
OK, something needs to happen to bridge the gap between the Six Nations and the rest of Europe. But personally, I’m not a big fan of artificial franchises, of clubs that aren’t tied to their communities.
For a 2022-3 fixture list and more on the Super Cup, see here.
Talking rugby in Spanish
If you’re ever in a Spanish rugby conversation, here are a few words to help you through. One or two might be Argentinian equivalents. If I’ve got any wrong, feel free to leave a note in comments!
- Forwards: delanteros ‘el pack de delanteros’ – the pack
- Three quarters/backs: tres cuartos
- Scrum: la melé
- Ruck: el ruck
- Maul: el maul
- Linea de touch (pronounced tooch) – touchline
- Lineout: un saque de banda/saque de lateral/saque de touch
- Lineout throw not straight: balón desviado
- Penalty: golpe de castigo
- Try: ensayo
- Penalty try: ensayo de castigo
- Offside: fuera de juego
- Conversion: transformación
- Advantage: ventaja
- Red/yellow card: tarjeta roja/amarilla
- Sin bin: sin bin
- Foul play – juego sucio
- Knock on: knock-on
- Forward pass: avant
- Throw in: tiro
- Drop kick: un drop/puntapié de botepronte
- Mark: mark
- To tackle: placar
- A tackle: un placaje
- High tackle: placaje alto
- Referee: árbitro
- Touch judge: juez de línea/asistente del árbitro
- Half time: intermedio
- Match: partido/encuentro
- Draw: partido empatado
- First half/second half: primera parte/segunda parte
- Phase: fase
- The posts: los palos. Tiro a palos: have a shot at the posts
- Pick and go: pick and go!