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Spain's quest to overturn World Rugby's severe punishment

By Tom Vinicombe
Gavin Van den Berg of Alcobendas gestures during the spanish league (Photo by Oscar J. Barroso / Europa Press Sports via Getty Images)

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Mere weeks after earning a spot in the 2023 Rugby World Cup, Spain found themselves ejected from the tournament after it was discovered they fielded an ineligible player in two qualification matches with the Netherlands.

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The player in question was Gavin van den Berg – a South African-born front-rower who notched up 50 minutes of action in a cumulative 95-7 thrashing over two legs of action.

After an investigation prompted by complaints from the Portuguese union, World Rugby docked Spain the 10 competition points they had earned from their two matches against the Netherlands, which saw them drop from second to fourth on the qualification ladder and scuppered any chances they had of playing at the flagship competition.

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World Rugby’s independent judicial committee found that while the Spanish Rugby Federation (FER) had not intentionally fielded an ineligible player, they had effectively not completed the necessary due diligence to determine whether or not Van den Berg had completed the required three-year period of ‘consecutive residency’ in order to play for Spain.

As a non-Spanish-born player, Van den Berg could only qualify to play for Spain on grounds of residency, which would require him to spend 36 months living in the country before playing for the eligible team. Throughout that period, no more than two months a year could be spent outside the country, except in extenuating circumstances – which would have to be signed off on by World Rugby.

Van den Berg moved to Spain in 2018 and after two campaigns with Aparejadores Burgos rugby club, shifted to the Alcobendas club based in Madrid ahead of the 2020-21 División de Honor de Rugby season. Although he had spent almost four years living in Spain (three of which came before his first test cap in 2021), Van den Berg was found by World Rugby’s investigation to have not been based in the country for at least 10 months in each of those 12-month cycles (he spent 127 days offshore in his first year) – despite being cleared to play for Los Leones by both the Spanish Federation and World Rugby themselves.

The issue, however, was that copies of Van den Berg’s passport had been edited by his Alcobendas club in order to make it look like he hadn’t spent as much time outside of Spain as he really had – and that’s what World Rugby signed off on.

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Alcobendas’ deceit was only uncovered after members of the Russian union (who were dropped from the qualification process) did some sleuthing on social media and were able to determine that Van den Berg has clearly spent more time outside Spain than either the FER or World Rugby had believed.

The rationale for Alcobendas forging Van den Berg’s documents are still not explicitly clear but it is possible that the club were trying to circumnavigate competition rules regarding the number of Spain-eligible players required per squad– or perhaps they simply wanted the acclaim that comes with seeing another club representative earn test rugby status.

What also remains unclear is whether Van den Berg was aware of the duplicity.

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World Rugby found in their ruling that the 26-year-old wasn’t complicit in the deception and RugbyPass understands this influenced the game’s governing body’s decision to hand out as severe a punishment as they did. However, Van den Berg had plenty to gain from qualifying for the Spanish national side, including reinforcing his position with Alcobendas, and it’s unusual, although certainly not impossible, that a player would not be aware of the residency requirements. According to a declaration submitted by the manager of the Spanish national side, José Manuel Pérez Corchado, as part of the Spanish Rugby Federation’s appeal Van den Berg was well aware of the requirements – and likely well aware he had not met them.

World Rugby have been known to be flexible with the regulation laws in the past. A number of newsagents erroneously reported recently that Romania’s Jason Tomane was not eligible to represent the Oaks as he had spent in excess of two months outside of the country during one of the years of residency. The Romanian Rugby Federation issued a statement earlier this month, however, confirming that the union had received an exception from World Rugby prior to Tomane taking the field, as the midfielder was required to leave the country in order to apply for residency.

While World Rugby might have had some sympathy for Van den Berg, the fact that an exception wasn’t sought and that deceit was ultimately used, even if wasn’t on behalf of the FER, evidently swayed the organisation towards the heavy punishment dished out to the Spanish union. In their investigation, World Rugby also seemingly took notice of the fact that Van den Burg acknowledged he did not feel at ‘home’ in Spain in his first year in the country, and suggested that an Instagram post by Van den Berg where he referred to himself as a ‘Saffa’ was “not insignificant” – highlight the somewhat less than scientific means for determining eligibility.

The FER launched an appeal last month to try and wrestle back their World Cup qualification status and, as first reported by The Telegraph, cited a number of examples of players who had never had their residency questioned, despite many indications said players hadn’t considered their new nation ‘home’ until well into their three-year period.

The simple facts are, however, that Van den Berg did not complete three years of residency prior to representing Los Leones due to spending considerable time outside of Spain – but RugbyPass understands inconsistencies in the nationalisation process are not the only issue the federation had with World Rugby’s investigation.

Past incidents of nations fielding ineligible players have not always resulted in such major punishments as the complete forfeit of matches, especially when tier-one sides have been involved, such as the infamous ‘Grannygate’ scandal at the turn of the century. In that instance, Shane Howarth, Brent Sinkinson and David Hilton all racked up numerous caps for the home nations – including at the 1999 Rugby World Cup – despite it eventually coming to light that none of them were eligible for the teams they represented. The punishment? A slap on the wrists.

Of course, we’re now two decades on from the events of Grannygate and the game has become considerably more professional and better regulated throughout that period, but it’s difficult to envisage a top team receiving as serious a punishment as the one dished out to Spain in this instance. To do some crude, unscientific maths, as just one member of a playing 23 that won by a cumulative 88 points against the Netherlands during the World Cup qualifiers, some might argue that it would be fair to dock Los Leones four points per match – not competition points, actual points on the scoreboard.

Realistically, however, a more severe punishment would be justifiable, perhaps closer to one competition point per game in which Van den Berg featured – which would still see Spain advance to the Final Qualification Tournament as Europe 3, meaning they would have to re-earn their spot in the World Cup.

Given World Rugby’s initial adjudication, the odds are very much stacked against the Spanish Rugby Federation and the most likely scenario is the status quo is maintained, but whether that’s the fairest road forward is up for debate.

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