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'The feeling was like an explosion': The cost of Spain's World Cup ejection

By Tom Vinicombe
Alvar Gimeno. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

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There was jubilation in the Spanish camp when the national side qualified for the 2023 World Cup earlier this year and immeasurable despair when the team learned they had effectively been disqualified from the showpiece tournament due to fielding an ineligible player during two of their Rugby Europe Championship matches.

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Prop Gavin van der Berg was drafted into the Spanish squad for two matches against the Netherlands under the assumption that the South African-born front-rower was qualified to play for Los Leones. That assumption was based on the fact that his club side, Lexus Alcobendas Rugby, had forged documents to suggest that Van der Berg had completed three years of consecutive residency in Spain when, in reality, he had spent ample time outside of Spain throughout the period.

After an investigation into the matter, World Rugby docked Spain the 10 competition points they had earned against the Netherlands which saw Los Leones drop from second place on the ladder to fourth, costing them both an automatic ticket to the World Cup and also a shot at playing in the repechage competition to decide the tournament’s final qualifier.

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The Classic All Blacks preview their epic clash in Madrid.
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The Classic All Blacks preview their epic clash in Madrid.

Making matters worse, it was the second time in a row that Spain had initially qualified for a World Cup only for eligibility issues to see them dropped from the competition.

What separates this year’s disqualification from the prior’s, however, is that when Spain were booted out of the 2019 iteration, the fault was firmly on the union – who had knowingly fielded ineligible players. This year, the union’s only fault was not carrying out extra due diligence – but there was no deception at play on their behalf, just ignorance. The primary fault lies elsewhere.

But if the spectacle that was Spain’s recent match with the Classic All Blacks in Madrid is anything to go by, World Rugby will be missing a massive trick by not reconsidering Spain’s omission from the 2023 World Cup.

Over 40,000 spectators turned out at the Wanda Metropolitano on Saturday night to witness an epic clash between the Spanish national side and some of the top New Zealand players of yesteryear. The game itself was a thriller, with the touring Classic All Blacks triumphing 33-26 following a great comeback from Los Leons, but it was the passion and excitement from the fans that should have had the administrators of the game taking note.

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Despite only filling two-thirds of the Wanda Metropolitano, the fans in attendance produced noise on par with what you would hear at huge tests at Twickenham, the Principality Stadium or Stade de France.

Rugby is growing quickly on the Iberian peninsula and Spain have proven on the field that there are few better sides in mainland Europe – beyond first-tier nations such as France and Italy. If World Rugby are looking to expand and grow the game then they could do little better than taking a World Cup to Spain, given the already evident passion for the sport in the nation coupled with its proximity to the likes of France and the United Kingdom.

Instead, however, Spain aren’t likely to even feature at the competition next year.

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While it’s right to send a clear message to administrators that things need to change in the Spanish Rugby Federation (and, by all accounts, those changes are already taking place), Los Leones are being dished out a harsh punishment – for the second competition in a row – for off-field indiscretions.

“I remember I started to cry,” Spanish centre Alvar Gimeno told RugbyPass of his elation following Los Leones securing second spot in the European qualification behind Georgia. “It was an emotion that I can’t explain, the feeling was like an explosion.

“We were really, really happy and the whole week leading up to Georgia we were having fun and enjoying being part of the group. We were in the World Cup.

“Now… it is difficult.”

“We did everything we could do to get there,” added teammate Gonzalo Vinuesa. “Someone did something terrible – something that is the opposite of what rugby [stands for] in Spain – that has led to us as a team and us as a country being left out of the World Cup. It’s very, very difficult.”

Van der Berg accrued just 50 minutes of rugby for Spain in their wins against the Netherlands over the past two years (the only time he spent in camp with the side), coming off the bench in 2021’s 52-7 thrashing and this year’s 43-0 thumping. It’s safe to say that even without Van der Berg’s contribution, Los Leones would have managed comfortable wins in both games.

“He was with the team for two weeks – just the two weeks he played,” said Vinuesa. “He wasn’t really a part of the team. He plays in the Spanish competition so we knew him from that, but that’s all.

“It makes no sense but it is what it is.”

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For 24-year-old Gimeno and 21-year-old Vinuesa, there will likely come an opportunity in future to represent their nation at a Rugby World Cup (although Gimeno now has his sights set on a stint in New Zealand to recharge the batteries) – but for some of the stalwarts in the side, 2023 represents the last possible chance to play in the game’s showpiece tournament.

“There are a lot of people who thought they would retire in 2023 after the World Cup but now I don’t know how the team will be in one year,” Vinuesa said.

While Spain are challenging World Rugby’s decision, with the ultimate goal of being readmitted to the 2023 tournament – and are willing to step through as many hoops as necessary to get Los Leones to the World Cup – chances are slim that the game’s governing body will back down on their decision, especially given what happened ahead of the 2019 event.

Even if there is only a slim chance of reversing World Rugby’s decision, however, Spain will take those chances and fight to the bitter end.

“We’re trying to do everything we can,” said Vinuesa.

“I’m not hopeful,” added Gimeno. “Maybe there’s a small chance so we’re going to fight it… But I think we’re out.”

All signs might point to Los Leones not taking part in the 2023 World Cup – but it’s not just Spain who will suffer. The global audience has been robbed of the opportunity to see one of the most exciting developing nations take part in a World Cup for the first time since 1999 and witness the continued growth of the game in wider Europe.

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