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/La Vila Joiosa, just up the coast from Alicante, rugby is alive and kicking.

CR La Vila played last season in the elite 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. 

A narrow (ish) home defeat against Silverstorm El Salvador of Valladolid, April 2022. La Vila (in blue) put six tries past the league leaders and still ended up on the losing side!

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.

Rugby on the Costa Blanca – scrum down in a famous victory against the previous year’s champions VRAC, October, 2021

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.

Match tickets are €10  and kids under 16 get in free. This season La Vila will play in Division de Honor B, one division below the top level. Check out the fixtures for 2023-4 here.

On the wrong end of a 10-52 defeat by Belenos in April 2023.

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.

Villajoyosa isn’t natural rugby country. Most of the big names in Spanish rugby are from the north of Spain – Valladolid and Burgos, for example – or Madrid, and they 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’s home stadium. I can think of a few British clubs who would envy these facilities. And the weather!

The mens’ first team is a mixture of home grown players with a sprinkling of overseas talent, mostly from South America. Follow the club on Instagram and Facebook

La Vila run women’s teams – they’ve recently 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 hereAnd the La Vila stadium also hosts the Benidorm Sevens in May with teams from across Europe – check out highlights of the 2023 tournament here.

La Vila on their way to a thumping home defeat against Barcelona Nov 2022

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 men’s rugby world cup in France is in full swing – and Spain should have been there. But they’re not, 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 them 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.

Van den Berg’s club, Alcobendas of Madrid, was 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.

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 20 in the world rankings. They play in the second tier of European rugby, up against the likes of Georgia (easily the strongest side) Belgium, Portugal, Romania 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! 

Las Leonas

The Spanish women’s team – Las Leonas – are officially ranked 13th in the world, significantly higher than the men. 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 was 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 Tel Aviv (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!

Rugby field positions in Spanish
  • 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?

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© Guy Pelham

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