Los Leones

Spanish rugby on a high as they close in on RWC19 place in Ireland's pool

A stunning win over Romania last weekend has Spain close to World Cup qualification.

THE SPANISH RUGBY team were able to put their feet up and take in the Six Nations action over the last couple of days, still feeling the glow of their achievements last weekend.

Los Leones would have been keeping a close eye on Ireland and Scotland yesterday, given that their stunning 22-10 win over Romania a week ago has left them in pole position to claim the ‘Europe 1′ spot in Pool A of the 2019 World Cup.

Spain’s shock success in front of around 15,600 people at Estadio Nacional Complutense in Madrid means that if they can convincingly beat minnows Belgium and Germany in the Rugby Europe Championship next month, they will be going to Japan in 2019.

Armchair Fan / YouTube

It would be Spain’s first World Cup since 1999 – their only appearance in the competition so far – when they lost to Uruguay, Scotland and South Africa in the pool stages and there is an understandable level of excitement at the prospect.

Qualification is decided in an overall table from the 2017 and 2018 Rugby Europe Championships, excluding all games against Georgia – who are automatic World Cup qualifiers.

Spain’s win last weekend leaves them one point ahead of Romania, who still have to play Russia and Belgium. Nothing is guaranteed yet, but barring a disaster Spain should be able to seal the deal.

Versatile back Brad Linklater, a New Zealand native, kicked four penalties in the outstanding win over Romania and though he says Spain are centrally focused on beating Belgium and Germany in March, thoughts of the World Cup have naturally crossed his mind.

“If we get the job done in the last two games we will be in Pool A,” says the 32-year-old. “It’s not a bad pool with Ireland and Scotland!”

While Spain’s win over Romania has picked up some global attention, their 20-13 victory away to Russia in Krasnodar the weekend before was as important.

Travelling to Russia at this time of year can be incredibly tough due to the freezing temperatures, but Linklater and his team-mates had a little bit of luck.

“The week we left Madrid it was snowing here!” explains Linklater. “So we had perfect conditions to acclimatise and when we got to Russia it was probably actually better weather.

“It was still a long way from home and it’s always difficult to win in Russia.

James McLaren and Diego Zarzosa 16/10/1999 Spain's only World Cup so far was in 1999. Allsport / INPHO Allsport / INPHO / INPHO

“Once we got it done there, we had the self-belief and within the group, we were the only ones who realistically thought we were going to win against Romania.”

With Romania ranked four places above them ahead of last weekend’s clash in Madrid – and given that the Romanians have been to every single World Cup so far – the Spaniards were certainly underdogs.

But Linklater and his team-mates had been preparing for the clashes with Russia and Romania for well over 12 months, poring over match footage to analyse their opposition in great detail and training harder than ever before.

“Everyone was writing us off, no one was really expecting us to get up over Romania. We’ve only ever really beaten them once or twice in our history when they came over with weaker teams. With their best team out against us this time, no one was expecting us to win.

“There were a lot of emotions after the game but it’s something we’ve been targeting for over a year now.”

While football is the dominant sport in Spain, Linklater has been pleased with the positive media attention this victory over Romania has garnered for rugby.

“Obviously, rugby is not a big deal over here but in the last couple of years, we’re starting to get a big push behind it, especially with the sevens teams in the Olympics and the World Cup,” says Linklater.

“Now if we can get into the World Cup, that would mean that in the last couple of years it’s been a big movement. You can tell because there were almost 16,000 people at the Romania game.

“It’s not a big stadium but you couldn’t have fitted many more people in there. There were people hanging all over the edges of the stadium, so that was pretty cool. Hopefully one day they’ll put up a bigger stadium for us!”

Linklater, the younger brother of former Chiefs, Bristol and Maori All Blacks hooker Scott, is in his seventh season in Spain and has seen a notable development of the game there, particularly in the last three to four years.

He made his Spain debut in his fourth season in the country, having initially joined the Getxo Artea club in the Basque country after a Kiwi by the name of Bryce Bevin – then the Spain head coach – made the connection for him.

Despite planning to stay only for a year initially, Linklater has since married a Bilbao native, studied to qualify as a PE teacher and moved to Madrid, where he now plays his club rugby with Alcobendas in Spain’s 12-team top flight league, División de Honor.

“In the last three or four years, the Federation have been doing a lot of work with the younger age grades with the national teams, although not so much at club level yet because the resources are still minimal,” says Linklater.

“There’s not a lot of money going into it but the big thing that helps is that there are a lot of our players over in France in the Top 14 and Pro D2, and then some of the foreign guys like myself have been here for a few years now so that probably helps the level we’re able to play at as well.

“That feeds down the grades. There still needs to be a lot of work done and more infrastructure put in place.”

Linklater believes the quality of rugby in División de Honor has improved, but competing in the 2019 World Cup could inspire Spain’s rugby to step onto another level.

Many of Linklater’s team-mates are also in their 30s or nearing that point and Japan feels like perhaps their last chance to go to a World Cup.

“There’s a core group of guys that were trying in 2014 and they got close to qualifying for the 2015 World Cup,” he says. “For myself, it’s been a four-year journey and for a lot of guys at that mark, we made an end goal of making the World Cup.

“It’s been a really long process and bit by bit we’ve been getting better. To beat teams like Russia and Romania, it means we’ve made big steps and getting so close last time, you can see that everyone is pretty hungry to get there.”

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