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 is actually one of the best teams in Spain – quite something for a little town like ours. A home game at their stadium is a great way of spending a Sunday afternoon.   

Despite the disruption of Covid-19, CR La Vila had a terrific season in 2020/1. They didn’t lose a single match and topped it all off in May 2021 with promotion to the elite division of Spanish rugby, the División de Honor. They started the new 2021/2 season in fine style too – beating the league champions of the last five years, VRAC from Valladolid. Things haven’t gone too well since though – they’ve lost the last five on the trot and they’re languishing near the foot of the table.

Scrum down in a famous victory against last year’s champions VRAC Valladolid, October, 2021
Line out against Barca Rugbi in November 2021. A home defeat 31-43; sad to say, La Vila were outclassed.

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.

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 supporters and expat or tourist Brits – plus a few French fans –  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 is a mixture of home grown players with a sprinkling of overseas talent, mostly from South America – though last season, a couple of Welsh players made quite an impact. And this season (2021/2) they’re competing with the best teams in Spain in the División de Honor. That’s pretty good going for a team this far south in Spain, a long way from the rugby heartlands in the north of Spain.

Check how they’re doing here, check the fixture list here or follow the club on their website on Twitter Instagram and Facebook. La Vila run women’s teams and squads for a range of age groups, so it’s a real local club.

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. Highlights here are worth a watch – the Spanish players look as if they can’t quite believe it!

Los Leones

Los Leones – the Spanish men’s national side – are ranked 19 in the world and play in the second tier of European rugby, one below the Six Nations, against the likes of Belgium, Russia and Romania. It’s a league dominated by Georgia who are clearly a cut above the rest, but Spain usually manages second or third place behind them. Sadly, Los Leones lost to Romania, Georgia and Portugal in quick succession during March 2021, which leaves qualification for the 2023 World Cup looking very unlikely.

Las Leonas

The Spanish women’s team – Las Leonas – are ranked higher than the men, though they too look as if they’ve missed out on qualification for the World Cup in New Zealand in 2022. They won the Rugby Europe championship, one step below the Six Nations, in March 2019 (the last time it was played) and are currently ranked tenth in the world, ahead of top-flight rugby nations like South Africa and Scotland. Las Leonas were here in Villajoyosa in autumn 2020 for a match against an Iberdrola XV. 

Super League

There’s a new show in town this season (21/22), at least in the men’s game. It’s called the Super League 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 Portgual (Los Lusitanos), Belgium (Brussels Devils) and Holland (Delta). There’s a second pool with clubs from Russia, Georgia and Israel. Suprisingly though, not Romania, which has a great rugby tradition. It’s 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 I’m not a big fan of artificial franchises, of clubs that aren’t tied to their communities. And from a Spanish point of view, it hasn’t been great so far – Iberians lost to Lusitanos and VRAC lost two key players to injury, which messed up the start to their domestic season. 

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: maul
  • Lineout: una touch (pronounced ‘tooch’)
  • 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!
© Guy Pelham

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