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'It would be such an honour to play against Ireland, they're my second team'

Alejandro Alonso, who helped Spain to qualify for the World Cup, spent two years in Blackrock College.

Spain qualified for the World Cup last weekend.
Spain qualified for the World Cup last weekend.

OVER THE PAST week, Alejandro Alonso’s phone has barely stopped pinging with messages of congratulations. Several of them have come from Ireland.

The 23-year-old is part of the Spain squad that qualified for the World Cup by beating Portugal in a thrilling Rugby Europe Championship match in Madrid last Sunday.

Los Leones will now be part of Ireland’s pool at next year’s World Cup in France and Alonso might even end up playing against a former team-mate when Spain face Andy Farrell’s side in their opening game in Bordeaux.

Alonso spent the final two years of his secondary school education in Blackrock College, Dublin, so it was only natural that some of his old friends would be in touch following that thrilling 33-28 victory over the Portuguese.

Ireland back row Caelan Doris, who was in the same year as Alonso, was among those to reach out.

“He texted me when we qualified,” says Alonso. “He said, ‘Congrats Alejandro’ and hopefully I get to play against him because for me it would be such an honour to play against Ireland.

“I support Ireland, they’re my second team in rugby. Caelan is one of the best players in the world and hopefully I can play against him.”

This is just the second time Spain have qualified for the World Cup, having been part of the 1999 tournament. The sheer emotion was clear in Madrid last weekend in front of a crowd that was officially listed as 6,000 but looked like more than that.

alejandro-alonso-scores-a-try-despite-jack-kelly Alonso scoring a try against Ireland on the World 7s Series in 2020. Source: Mike Lee/INPHO

Santiago Santos’ side face Georgia tomorrow in what is a 2022 Rugby Europe Championship [REC] title decider but they certainly enjoyed the aftermath of last weekend.

“It has been crazy,” says Alonso. “It’s tough because we needed to concentrate on the game this weekend but to be fair, the Monday and Tuesday were a party, and then on Wednesday we got back to hard work. It’s amazing for Spain.”

Their success even made the front page of Marca, the most read daily newspaper in Spain and Alonso explains that this was the last shot at a World Cup for many of their squad. 

Spain actually started their World Cup qualification campaign with three consecutive defeats in last year’s Rugby Europe Championship – the combined 2021 and 2022 tables decided qualification – but have since won six in a row. Alonso hopes this is only the start of something long-lasting.

“Maybe now more Spanish children will be asking, ‘What’s that sport?’ and they will get into rugby. We might get more sponsors too, which is important because money means you could have better facilities and things like that.”

Alonso came off the bench in the victory over Portugal and he’s in the number 23 shirt again for tomorrow’s clash with Georgia in Tbilisi, the winner of which will lift the REC trophy. A draw would also be enough for Spain to be named champions for the first time.

Alonso only made his 15-a-side debut for Spain last year, having previously been a key man for the Spanish 7s team on the World Series, where he played against a few familiar faces from Blackrock.

He has played against Ireland 7s teams including Hugo Keenan – whose younger brother, Andrew, was in Alonso’s year in Blackrock – as well as Mark Roche, who coached Alonso during his time in the Dublin school.

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Alonso even got to play against Liam Turner, who is younger but had been his team-mate in 2016 when they were both vying for a place in midfield. Doris was the captain of that Blackrock side.

A native of Valladolid, Alonso ended up in school in Dublin after attending a rugby summer camp run by Nigel Osborne in France. Alonso was keen to improve his English, rugby and academics, so Osborne recommended Blackrock.

The young Spaniard tapped the school’s name into YouTube and was soon watching highlights of Garry Ringrose helping Blackrock to their 2013 Leinster Schools Senior Cup success. Alonso was blown away.

“I couldn’t believe it, I just thought it was amazing with the crowds,” he recalls. “Even the senior Spain team wouldn’t have crowds like that, whereas in Ireland you had these 18-year-old boys playing with big crowds.”

He went home and convinced his parents to send him to Ireland for the last two years of school, then delighted in every minute of it.

“For me, the two years I spent there were incredible,” says Alonso, who has tuned into Blackrock’s recent Senior Cup games online.

“People were so nice, I have so many good memories and a lot of friends. I enjoyed it a lot.

“I had the pleasure of playing with players who are now with Leinster and Ireland. For me, it was the first contact I had with high-level rugby in my life so I learned a lot.”

When Alonso was in sixth year, Peter Smyth was head coach of a senior team including Doris, Munster scrum-half Paddy Patterson, Ireland 7s internationals Gavin Mullin and Turner, ex-Connacht out-half Conor Dean, and Leinster lock Charlie Ryan.

blackrock-players-sing-to-their-supporters-before-the-game Alonso was blown away by schools rugby in Ireland. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

With Turner and Mullin starting in midfield, Alonso had a bench role as Blackrock beat Castleknock in the 2016 Senior Cup before a quarter-final draw with Belvedere, who they lost to in a thrilling replay. 

In Alonso’s eyes, the Irish schools game was “pure rugby.” He considered staying on in Ireland after school and even applied for Engineering in Trinity College, but he was accepted into a Medicine degree at home and returned to Valladolid.

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He was soon starring for Valladolid Rugby Asociación Club [VRAC], who have been wildly successful in the División de Honor de Rugby, the top flight of Spanish club rugby.

Alonso’s younger brother, 22-year-old Martín, is also an excellent rugby player who spent some time in Ireland. The Spanish wing is now on the books with Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle in France.

“He’s my favourite player in rugby!” says Alejandro with a laugh. “He also was in Blackrock for one year in transition year, he enjoyed it a lot.

“After that, he came back to Spain and when he was 16, he went to the academy in Clermont. Three years later, he signed with La Rochelle and he’s really happy there.”

Alejandro had three seasons with the Spain 7s but all the travelling meant he had a tough juggling act with his time-consuming medical degree.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, he decided to stop playing international 7s and focused instead on club rugby with VRAC. Little did he know the Spanish 15s team would soon come calling and he made his debut last year against Georgia in Madrid.

rugby-2022-spain-3328-portugal Spain will play against Ireland at the World Cup. Source: Alberto Gardin

While qualifying as a doctor is his big aim in life, Alonso would love to go to the Olympics with the Spain 7s in the future. And more immediately, he is dreaming of being part of the 15s World Cup in France next year.

Ireland, the Springboks, and Scotland lie in wait in Pool B, with Tonga looking almost certain to take the final spot.

“Those are the teams you watched on TV when you were a child and I can’t believe we have qualified to play against those teams,” says Alonso, who has also helped the Castilla y Leon Iberians side into the semi-finals of this season’s inaugural Rugby Europe Super Cup, which includes teams from Georgia, Isreal, Belgium, Portugal, and the Netherlands.

Tomorrow, Los Leones get the chance to make a little more history as they look to claim the Rugby Europe Championship.

This is all thrilling territory for Alonso and Spanish rugby.

“I started playing rugby when I was seven years old in Valladolid,” he says.

“When I was young, I dreamed about playing at a high level but I didn’t know I could go to a World Cup.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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