“I have so much belief in this exciting group of players” - Spain’s coach Santos ahead of historic Romania meeting
By next year it will have been 24 years since Spain’s men were present at a Rugby World Cup, but if they can keep up their good recent form, then a trip to France is still within reach.
Nothing would give current head coach Santiago Santos, a former international himself, greater joy than leading his country into Rugby World Cup 2023.
However, the experienced coach, now 60 and who has been in his current post since 2013, has been around the block enough times to never get too high or too low: he knows it is always about the next job.
He didn't let himself get too low when his charges lost their first three Rugby Europe Championship 2021 outings against Georgia, Romania and Portugal, nor has he gotten carried away with recent opening wins in the 2022 version of the tournament against the Netherlands and Russia.
The points from the Championship tables from 2021 and 2022 will be combined late in March with the top two going straight through to Rugby World Cup 2023 and the third placed team heading to a final qualifier later this year.
Currently, in the combined table after seven of 10 games, Spain are sitting third behind leaders Georgia (31 points) and second placed Romania (22 points).
They are just one point behind Romania and that makes this Sunday’s meeting of the two sides in the Estadio Central UCM in Madrid (12:45 local, 11:45 GMT) a very important – and intriguing – one.
Keeping the focus on what's ahead
“We have put ourselves in a good position in terms of achieving our goal of qualifying for Rugby World Cup 2023, but we know there is a lot more rugby to be played and our only focus right now is this upcoming match against Romania,” Santos said.
“Since Andy Robinson came in as head coach of the Romanian team they have improved in many different parts of their game and we expect a very tough contest this weekend.
“We are at home though and we have to try and use that to our advantage. The support we are getting from the Spanish rugby public is brilliant at the moment and we want to give them something to get excited about.
“I have so much belief in this exciting group of players that are playing in the national team at the minute and over the last year or so, every time we have been together in camps I have tried to keep telling them to believe in themselves.
“That belief is growing and growing amongst the players all of the time and they are now putting together 80-minute performances and do not know when they are beaten”.
Those battling qualities were certainly evident in Spain's most recent game, when Spain and Russia battled it out in the Yug Stadium in Sochi on February 12.
The game was back and forth – and in the balance – from minute one and, with nine minutes to go, a penalty by Spain’s Manuel Ordas made it 34-30.
But the real drama was yet to come.
Replacement Vitaly Zhivatov went over on the left for a try and Ramil Gaisin converted to put Russia 37-32 up.
However, with the clock in the red, Spanish replacement front-row Santiago Ovejero burst over for the winning try for Spain which was converted, leaving Russia crestfallen and with just a losing bonus point to show for their efforts after a 41-37 defeat.
A team prepared for the challenge
As a former front-row himself, Santos was impressed by Ovejero’s effort and said: “We started very well in the game, but we always knew that Russia would come back at us at some point and what pleased me most is that the team stayed calm and showed good focus towards the end to get the win.
“Winning away from home against any team in the Championship is not easy at all, so the players and the coaching staff were happy on that day, but it tells you something about our collective desire to make it to the World Cup that soon after we were all thinking about the Romania game.”
Since the start of 2021 – when Spain battled back from the aforementioned three opening losses in the Championship to record two victories over Russia and the Netherlands – the current playing group have become tighter and tighter.
And around the time of the 52-7 win versus the Netherlands in Amsterdam in December, wider squad member Kawa Leauma tragically passed away.
As a result, the squad’s desire to make it to next year’s showpiece event in France has taken on extra meaning.
“It would mean so much to me personally – and to the Spanish rugby community – to make it to a World Cup again,” Santos concludes.
“I remember what it was like when the country got there in 1999, but there are lots of young rugby lovers in our country who don’t remember that.
“We want to give the next generation something to cheer about and continue the growth of this great sport in our nation”.
Elsewhere this weekend in round three of the Rugby Europe Championship for 2022, Portugal host the Netherlands on Saturday and Russia head to Georgia on Sunday, 27 February. Should Georgia beat Russia in Tbilisi on Sunday, they will claim one of the two Rugby World Cup 2023 spots up for grabs in the Rugby Europe Championship.
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(Photo: Helena Lanuza/Spanish Rugby Union)