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. The town even hosted a major international tournament in November 2023 – more of that below.
Villajoyosa’s team, CR La Vila, played last season in the top division of Spanish rugby – quite something for a little town like ours. OK, so they got relegated, but watching a home game at their stadium is still a great way of spending a Sunday afternoon.
So why did they get relegated? Well, La Vila began 2022/3 facing some serious financial problems and most of their best players left. Which meant they were on the wrong end of some real hammerings by the top teams and finished firmly at the bottom of the table.
But on the plus side, they have a great little stadium at el Estadio del Pantano, a few minutes drive out of town on the road to Orxeta. I’m guessing more than a few clubs back in the UK would love the facilities they have here.
This season, La Vila are playing in Division de Honor B, one division below the top level. They’ve got off to a good start too – played six, won six. Check out the fixtures for 2023-4 here and see how La Vila are doing here and 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. Let’s face it, for British fans, watching rugby on the Costa Blanca in warm sunshine certainly beats the biting wind and driving rain back home.
And in November 2023, there was a bit of a treat – La Vila hosted the International Rugby Cup, featuring the Spanish national men’s side in a four-cornered tournament with the USA, Canada and Brazil.
Spain played the United States in the final. The USA was one place above them in the world rankings, so it was always going to be close. Rather embarrassingly though, Spain got spanked. They lost 12-42, thus proving they have a long way to go before they can compete with the top international teams.
Villajoyosa isn’t natural rugby country though. Most of the big names in Spanish rugby are from the north of Spain – Valladolid and Burgos, for example – or Madrid. These teams get the big-name sponsors.
To try to match their financial firepower, CR La Vila have done a sponsorship deal this season with Chocolates Valor, the town’s big chocolate producer. So the club is officially now known as ‘Club de Rugby Huesitos-La Vila’ (Huesitos is their top-selling chocolate bar, in case you were wondering).
La Vila run women’s teams – they’ve combined forces with Alicante club Akra – and also squads for a whole range of age groups, so it’s a real community club.
La Vila also hosted a European beach rugby tournament on the town’s Playa Centro in July 2023 – highlights of some of the action here. And the La Vila stadium also hosts the Benidorm Sevens in May with teams from across Europe – check out highlights of the 2023 tournament 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.
Los Leones and the World Cup scandal
The World Cup in France is now over – and Spain should have been there, mixing it with the best. But they weren’t, thanks to a huge scandal that rocked Spanish rugby in 2022.
Let me explain. In March 2022, the men’s national team (Los Leones) qualified for the 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 10 points and hit them with a big fine. Spain were out of the World Cup and Romania took their place.
Astonishingly, this was the second time in successive World Cup campaigns that Spain had 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 – read more here.
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.
Van den Berg’s club Alcobendas were demoted from the Division de Honor, kicked out of the Copa del Rey and fined. The president of Spanish rugby resigned.
The only consolation? Romania, whose complaint led to Spain being expelled and who took Spain’s World Cup place, lost all their pool matches. Including an 82-8 thumping by Ireland. Hah!
Spain in the world rankings
Up until this point, you could say men’s rugby was a growing sport here, but Los Leones have now slumped to 19 in the world rankings. They play in the second tier of European rugby, below the Six Nations.
That means they’re up against the likes of Georgia (ranked 14 and usually the strongest side) and Portugal, now ranked 13 after their surprise defeat of Fiji at the World Cup. Then there’s Romania (ranked 20) and – until the Ukraine invasion – Russia. Belgium, Germany and Poland have joined for 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!
The Spanish women’s team – Las Leonas – are officially ranked 12th in the world, just above South Africa. That’s significantly higher than Los Leones. Sadly though, they didn’t manage to qualify for the World Cup in New Zealand in 2022.
They did win the 2023 Rugby Europe championship – a three-cornered tournament with the Netherlands and Sweden (who replaced Russia). The Sweden match was played here in La Vila in February 2023 – Spain notched up a thumping 90-5 victory.
Spain and the Super Cup
The Super Cup started in the 2021-2 season and involved new franchised teams competing across Europe under the umbrella of Rugby Europe. There’s 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 compete against teams from Portugal (Los Lusitanos), Georgia (Black Lion) and Israel (Tel Aviv Heat) in pool A, while in Pool B are teams from Czechia (Bohemia Warriors), Belgium (Brussels Devils), Romania (Wolves) and the Netherlands (Delta). Russia used to field a team but they 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 2023/4 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 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!
Want to know more about La Vila?
Check out these posts:
- My top ten things to do in Villajoyosa
- Best places to eat and drink in La Vila
- Exploring the old town of Villajoyosa
- Villajoyosa’s amazing beaches