Spain’s players celebrated as if they’d won the Rugby World Cup after a famous 22-10 win over Romania on Sunday put them in pole position to qualify for rugby’s showpiece tournament for the first time since 1999.
Hundreds of fans poured onto the pitch at the Estadio Nacional Universidad Complutense following the final whistle to congratulate their heroes who had produced one of Spain’s finest performances for many a year.
Early tries from prop Benat Auzqui and Sebastien Ascarat and four penalties from the boot of Brad Linklater secured Spain their first win over the Oaks in six years and took them one point clear of their beaten opponents at the top of the RWC 2019 qualification table.
With matches to come against the bottom two sides Germany and Belgium, on 11 and 18 of March respectively, following their regular Rugby Europe Championship fixture against Georgia in a fortnight’s time, Los Leones’ destiny is now firmly in their own hands in the race to claim the ticket to play in Pool A as Europe 1.
It did not take long for the capacity crowd to find their voice under the brilliant blue skies in Madrid, Auzqui giving the home side a dream start when he took a pass from inside centre Dan Snee and sprinted home from 15 metres in the wide left channel.
A few minutes later, full-back Charlie Malie carved open the Romanian defence to set up the attacking platform which led to Spain’s second try. The move looked to have broken down when Malie’s offload went to ground but, with no knock-on, Spain were able to regain possession and work the ball into the hands of playmaker Mathieu Belie.
Belie then produced one of his trademark grubber kicks, which Oaks scrum-half Florin Surugiu made a hash of as he tried to kick the ball into touch. Instead of clearing his lines, Surugiu only served to present the ball on a plate for winger Ascaret to dot down and score.
Linklater was off target with his second conversion attempt and the score stood at 10-0 to Spain until Romania got their first points from the boot of Florin Vlaicu after Los Leones failed to roll away in the tackle.
Spain continued to look the livelier of the two sides, though, with Belie and Ascarat prominent with ball in hand. New Zealand-born Linklater atoned for his two misses by landing the first of his four penalties at the end of the first quarter and, with Romania struggling to get their big power runners into the game, the score stayed at 13-3 up to half-time.
It only took Spain five minutes to extend their lead after Romania were penalised for side entry at the maul. Linklater’s second penalty sailed between the posts to take him past the 200-point milestone in test rugby.
Romania’s increasingly desperate attempts to find a way through Spain’s red wall led to some wayward passes being thrown inside their own 22, and they conceded another penalty, this time for holding on, which winger Linklater slotted to make the score 19-3 with an hour gone.
The 32-year-old added another from just over 40 metres with eight minutes remaining before Romania conjured up a consolation try for Sione Fakaosilea, converted by replacement Valentin Calafeteanu.
Bears finish strongly
Russia finished strongly to beat Belgium 48-7 and remain in contention for the RWC 2019 Europe play-off game against Portugal, or even the Europe 1 spot if they can beat Romania, on 3 March, and Spain slip up in the penultimate two rounds.
Centre Mikhail Babaev opening the scoring in the sixth minute when he latched onto a grubber kick in the left-hand corner. Yuri Kushnarev’s conversion from wide out took them into a 7-0 lead.
Second-row Andre Garbuzov, denied a try in last week’s loss to Spain, barged his way over from close range to make it 12-0 before flanker Tagir Gadzhiev added another on the stroke of half-time. With Kushnarev converting, the Bears went into the break 19-0 up.
Belgium needed to score first in the second half to have any chance of staging a comeback and they did so when full-back Vincent Hart went over for a converted try in the 49th minute. But the Black Devils failed to add to their tally thereafter as Russia regained control and dominated for the rest of the match.
Four of Russia’s seven tries came in the final 23 minutes as a stubborn Belgium side began to tire in Krasnodar.
Kushnarev’s 53rd-minute penalty was quickly followed by two efforts from second-row Evgeny Elgin, either side of a try for replacement back Igor Galinovsky. Replacement Bogdan Fedotko completed the scoring – and a good afternoon’s work for the second-row contingent – when he dotted down late on.
Already guaranteed to be at Japan 2019, Georgia's sole focus in the Rugby Europe Championship is to reclaim the title they lost last year to Romania.
And Milton Haig’s side improved on their 47-0 opening day win over Belgium by beating Germany 64-0 in Offenbach – the first time they have achieved back-to-back clean sheets in test rugby.
The Lelos were a long way off their best, though, a litany of handling errors keeping the scoreline below what many people predicted prior to kick-off and, like Russia, it took a second-half surge to truly reflect the gulf between the teams on the scoreboard.
Germany suffered an early blow when they lost promising young winger Zani Dembele to a foot injury with the game still pointless. Shortly after he was stretchered off, Georgia scored their first try when centre Giorgi Kveseladze jinked back inside the drift defence from a few metres out. Beka Tsiklauri added the extras.
The Lelos maintained the pressure on Germany and went 12-0 up when Alexandre Todua beat replacement winger Pascal Fischer in the chase to touch down a grubber kick.
Dominant in the scrum and in the contact area, Georgia enjoyed the bulk of the territory and possession and had plenty of good front-foot ball to work with, but they were only able to add one more converted try before half-time, tight-head Levan Chilachava proving unstoppable from close range as the half-hour mark approached.
Germany had an opportunity to register their first points of the game when they were awarded a penalty in the 31st-minute, but Winston Cameron-Dow put his kick just wide of the upright.
There continued to be no lack of commitment from Germany, but the long periods spent without the ball began to tell in the second half as Georgia racked up the points against their tiring opponents, the Lelos scoring three tries in the final seven minutes.