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John-Wessel Bell: 'We can give a lot to the world, we can shock teams'

By Liam Heagney
John Wessel Bell after Spain finished third in the 2024 Rugby Europe Championship

Twenty-eight tries were scored at Stade Jean Bouin on Sunday across the four Rugby Europe Championship finals but one of the most skilful was the supreme 11-second solo effort of John-Wessel Bell, the Spain full-back.

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The thrilling 11-try bronze medal clash with Romania hadn’t started well for the Spanish as they quickly fell 12 points behind. However, one of the major first-half momentum swingers was what Bell produced in the 30th minute of the playoff.

He was about a yard outside his own team’s 22 when he gathered a clearance kick from the Romanians after one bounce. About nine steps later, on approaching the 10-metre line, he lofted skyward a kick of his own just as the first would-be tackler looked to intervene.

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A stumble followed but he managed to stay upright and gallop after his punt, jumping in the air to battle with Tevita Manumua about five yards the other side of the halfway line.

The Romanian looked better placed to gather but the South African brilliantly leaped like a springbok to fetch the ball without losing any of his momentum.

His speed on landing then took him around the outside of Hinckley Vaovasa on the 10-metre line and with the ball tucked securely under his right arm, he raced away to score in the corner the converted try that put Spain in front and on their way to a 40-33 win that was more comfortable than it sounded as the Romanians struck with two very late tries.

It was a brilliant execution from the 34-year-old South African, who debuted for Spain in the 2019/20 season following his three-year residency qualification.

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“I love to catch high balls. That’s all I want to do, I want to run with the ball. We didn’t get that many opportunities but I am very happy with my effort there and it came out with a try, so very happy with that,” he told RugbyPass in the dressing room corridor after the victory.

It’s been a difficult redemption road for Spain. Two years ago, they had qualified for Rugby World Cup 2023 with a 33-28 win over Portugal, securing a spot in Pool B with matches versus Scotland, Ireland and South Africa. It wasn’t to be, however.

Six weeks later, on foot of a successful objection from Romania about the right of South Africa-born Gavin van den Berg to pull on the red jersey on residency grounds, Los Leones were painfully hit by a hefty points deduction.

That gave the Romanians the automatic qualification spot and bumped Portugal up into the qualifier repechage that they won before ultimately going on to beat Fiji and draw with Georgia at France 2023.

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Disqualification deeply hurt but Spain are back up and running, coming within a whisker of beating Os Lobos in a Rugby Europe semi-final at the start of March before earning bronze with a deserved success versus Romania.

These efforts have inflamed optimism that Rugby World Cup 2027 qualification is a genuine target with that tournament set to expand from 20 to 24 teams in Australia.

“We are very happy with the win. We came here with a goal to beat Romania. We knew if we beat them we are going to have a better pool to qualify for the World Cup in 2027. We came with an objective and we accomplished that. Very happy,” enthused Bell.

“I would love to play World Cup. I personally was so sad when we got disqualified from the previous World Cup because that was a time when I felt like I had a great opportunity to play World Cup.

“To stay another three and a half years, four years, it will take a lot out of us, a lot out of me, but I would really like to do that.

“I would be honoured to play World Cup if Spain qualifies. Portugal had a very good World Cup, but I still believe we are better and we can give a lot to the world if we play at that stage – we can shock a lot of teams as well.

“The last two games we changed a few things and we’re quite happy with it. Pablo Bouza, the new coach, is pushing us in a different direction and we are learning and adapting with the team and it will be good for the future.”

What was obvious from speaking with Bell, who still had his Rugby Europe bronze medal around his neck, was how proud he is to have made a success of himself in Spain where he emigrated to after a couple of Super Rugby appearances with the Lions in 2016 was the height of his progress in his native South Africa.

“I played for the Pumas (Currie Cup) and the Lions in Super Rugby and I was at a point in my life that I felt like I needed to change a few things, wanted to see a few different countries. I decided to come to Spain and it worked out quite well for me.

“I stayed for two years and then the international team talked to me and said, ‘Stay another year and then you can play for the international team’. That’s what I did and my family and I are very happy. We have a great life in Spain and I am very honoured to play for Spain. I enjoy it a lot.”

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