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. 

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!

La Vila compete in the top league of Spanish rugby. the División de Honor. They started the 2021/2 season in fine style, beating the league champions of the last five years, VRAC from Valladolid.

Things didn’t go so well after that though – La Vila 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).

Scrum down in a famous victory against last year’s champions VRAC, also from Valladolid, October, 2021

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 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 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 – 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.

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 community club.

Line out against Barca Rugbi in November 2021. A home defeat 31-43; sad to say, La Vila were outclassed.

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

A massive sore point with Spanish rugby fans right now. Let me explain. In March 2022 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 have been demoted from the Division de Honor and kicked out of the Copa del Rey.  The president of Spanish rugby has resigned as a result of the scandal.

Up until this point, you could say mens’ rugby was a growing sport here. Los Leones are ranked 15 in the world, only one place behind Italy of the Six Nations. Spain plays 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.

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 10th in the world. That’s higher than the men and ahead of top rugby countries like Wales and South Africa, though 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.

Super Cup

There’s a new show in town this season (21/22), at least in the men’s game. It’s called the Super Cup 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 pool. There’s an eastern pool with clubs from Georgia, Israel and Russia (until Ukraine happened). Surprisingly though, not Romania. 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 I’m not a big fan of artificial franchises, of clubs that aren’t tied to their communities. 

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 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!
© Guy Pelham

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