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, just up the coast from Alicante, rugby is alive and kicking.

CR La Vila is actually one of the better 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.

La Vila scrum down against Hernani in the top division of Spanish rugby, November 2018

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 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. Some come here for warm-weather training; Super League side Leeds Rhinos were here in January 2020. World Rugby were due to hold the under-20 world championships in La Vila in September 2020 until Covid-19 got in the way.

The impressive CR La Vila stadium on the outskirts of Villajoyosa

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.

Heading for a 45-19 home win in Jan 2020 against Babarians Calviá

The first team is a mixture of home grown players with a sprinkling of overseas talent, mostly from South America. They play in the second division of Spanish rugby – División de Honor B – although as recently as 2019, they were in the top flight. That’s pretty good going for a team this far south in Spain, a long way from the rugby heartlands up near the French border. 

Check how they’re doing here or follow the club on their website or Facebook here.

CR La Vila
La Vila on the way to a famous victory 17-10 against the then league leaders Les Abelles, January 2020.

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.

But the game has a firm footing in Spain. The 2018 European Champions Cup final was held in Bilbao. And Spain’s sevens team even managed to beat the mighty All Blacks in a World Rugby Sevens Series match in March 2019; La Vila’s Javi Carrion was in the squad that day. Highlights here are worth a watch – the Spanish players look as if they can’t quite believe it!

Lineout against VRAC Valladolid, January 2019. Sadly a heavy home defeat against the then league leaders, 20-44.

Los Leones – the Spanish men’s national side – play in the second tier of European rugby, one below the Six Nations. Last season, they finished second to Georgia and came within an ace of qualifying for the World Cup in Japan. They were denied in their final qualifying match against against Belgium, by the worst display of refereeing I’ve ever seen. In any sport. 

Here’s the thing – if Spain lost, Romania would qualify for the World Cup. The ref and his assistants were all – you guessed it – Romanian. As was the president of Rugby Europe. Spain did lose 10-18, against a team they’ve hammered both before and since.

The inquiry ordered by World Rugby was a farce. Both Spain and Romania were banned for fielding ineligible players, nothing whatsoever to do with the disastrous refereeing, so neither team went to the World Cup. Russia went instead. Predictably, they were completely outclassed, losing all their group matches.

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 ranked ninth in the world, ahead of top-flight rugby nations like South Africa, Ireland and Scotland. They’re some distance ahead of the Spanish men’s team, who are ranked 17th.

La Vila staged two women’s internationals in autumn 2018, against South Africa and Hong Kong. Happily, Las Leonas won both.

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
  • Three quarters/backs: tres cuartos
  • Scrum: la melé
  • Ruck: ruck
  • Maul: maul
  • Lineout: lineout/saque de touch/saque de lateral
  • Penalty: golpe de castigo/puntapié de castigo
  • Try: ensayo
  • Penalty try: ensayo de castigo
  • Offside: fuera de juego
  • Conversion: transformación
  • Advantage: ventaja
  • Yellow/red card: tarjeta roja/amarilla
  • Knock on: knock-on
  • Forward pass: avant/pase forward/ pase hacia adelante
  • Offside: offside/fuera de juego
  • Throw in: tiro
  • Drop kick: un drop/puntapié de botepronte
  • Mark: mark
  • To tackle: placar
  • A tackle: un placaje
  • Referee: árbitro
  • Touch judge: juez de línea/asistente del árbitro
  • Half time: intermedio
  • Match: partido/encuentro
  • First half: primera parte
  • Second half: segunda parte
  • Phase: fase de juego
  • Tiro a palos: have a shot at the posts
  • Pick and go: pick up and go
© Guy Pelham 2020 (updated version of a 2017 blogpost)

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