King Felipe VI of Spain was among a bumper 15,753 crowd in Madrid as Los Leones recorded an emphatic 84-10 win over Germany to take another step closer towards automatic qualification for Rugby World Cup 2019.
Following their second highest score in test rugby, Spain will head into the final round of Rugby Europe Championship 2018 fixtures knowing that victory over Belgium in Brussels on Saturday will secure them the Europe 1 spot in Pool A in Japan.
Romania, the only other team in the Rugby Europe Championship still in contention to qualify for Japan 2019, ran out 62-12 winners over Belgium to keep the pressure on Los Leones. That win means Romania still sit top of the region's RWC 2019 qualification standings with 29 points, three more than Spain who, unlike their rivals, still have one eligible match to play in the race for the Europe 1 spot.
If Spain triumph over Belgium then Romania will face a play-off against Rugby Europe Trophy 2017 champions Portugal with the winner to tackle Samoa home and away in June for the Play-off Winner spot in Pool A.
The Oaks also have a mathematical chance of keeping hold of the Rugby Europe Championship trophy they won 12 months ago but would need to beat Georgia with a bonus point in Tbilisi and deny the Lelos anything from the game.
Georgia maintained their five-point lead at the top of the Rugby Europe Championship table after overturning a 9-7 half-time deficit to beat Russia 29-9 in Krasnodar.
Los Leones let loose
Spain ran in 11 tries and were awarded a penalty try as they racked up their best score since they defeated the Czech Republic 90-8 over two decades ago.
Germany fought gamely throughout but were outgunned in most areas and now face a relegation/promotion shootout with either Portugal or the Netherlands, on Saturday 19 May.
Full-back Mathie Peluchon kicked two penalties inside the first seven minutes as the home side looked to build a score in the presence of the Webb Ellis Cup, in the Spanish capital as part of the RWC 2019 Trophy Tour.
However, they did not have to wait long for their first try, Pierre Barthere being left with the easiest of run-ins on 13 minutes after playmaker Mathieu Belie had mesmerised the German defence with an arcing run.
After that, the floodgates opened. Ignacio Contardi took an inside ball at pace to cruise over before a penalty try, which also led to a yellow card for Falk Duwe, was followed by the first of two tries for Anibal Bonan, the second-row proving unstoppable from 15 metres out after running a great line among the heavy traffic.
Shortly after Duwe returned, Spain scored their fifth try after putting together a slick first-phase move from a scrum near halfway that was finished off by centre Thibaut Alvarez.
Germany pounded away at the Spanish line with a series of pick-and-goes in the final few minutes of the half but could not force their way over against a determined defence that had only conceded four tries in their first three matches against their three strongest opponents.
The second half followed a similar pattern although Germany did manage a consolation try midway through the half. Straight from the restart Spain won possession and kept hold of the ball for 10 phases before flanker Gautier Gibouin crashed over.
Replacement hooker Fernando Lopez was joined on the scoresheet by another replacement forward Thibault Visensang and both tries were converted by full-back Peluchon as Spain brought up their half-century. The scores came either side of Germany’s first scoring act: a 44-metre penalty from the boot of scrum-half Jan Piosik.
On the rare occasions Germany did make it into Spain’s 22 they were either turned over or coughed up possession, but they were gifted a try on the hour-mark when a wayward Spanish pass went through the hands of Ilaitia Gavidi. Winger Zinzan Hees was alert to the opportunity and dribbled the loose ball into the 22 before regathering and scoring.
The try only served to galvanise Spain who hit back with two tries in the space of four minutes, Bonan and Lopez doubling up with close-range efforts. Sebastien Ascarat then burst through two tired tackles to take the score to 77-10 before Brad Linklater was rewarded for a lively 20-minute cameo with the final try of the match.
Oaks give Howells stylish send-off
Romania achieved the bonus-point win they needed to take the race for the Rugby Europe Championship title and RWC 2019 qualification to the final round, in what turned out to be Lynn Howells’ last game in charge of the team.
Howells has been at the helm of the Romanian national team for six years, but the Welshman chose to tender his resignation along with assistants Rob Moffat and Massimo Cuttitta after the match with qualification for the next Rugby World Cup still uncertain. However, they will provide interim coaching ahead of the title decider with Georgia.
Romania were simply too powerful for Belgium at scrum time and a penalty try was awarded against a back-pedalling Belgium pack with 12 minutes gone.
With so much front-foot ball to play with, Romania were able to get over the gain-line at will and it wasn’t long before they added a second try, Jack Umaga rolling over in spectacular fashion after initially having his heels clipped by a tap tackle.
Number eight Stelian Burcea, from the back of another powerful scrum, and Africa-born flanker Moyale Kuselo added two more with Valentin Calafeteanu’s conversions pushing the score out to 26-0.
Once Romania lost prop Ionel Badiu to the sin-bin for a high tackle, Belgium wasted no time in making their numerical advantage count. After retaining possession for several phases, the Black Devils worked the ball to blindside flanker Gillian Benoy, who carried the ball one-handed down the right flank before offloading inside to centre Benjamin Cocu who raced away to score the pick of the game’s tries.
A Calafeteanu penalty right on the stroke of half-time made the score 29-5.
Another penalty try, this time from a collapsed maul, saw Romania extend their lead with the second half five minutes old. The one-sided nature of the game contined and a brilliant break and offload from second-row Johannes van Heerden set up Kuselo for his second before Ionut Dumitru scythed through the defence to take the score to 48-5.
Badiu atoned for his earlier act of ill-discipline by forcing his way over on 64 minutes as Romania reached the half-century. The Oaks were then awarded their third penalty try when referee Sam Grove-White lost patience with the under-pressure Belgium pack. Grove-White’s decision to yellow card tight-head prop James Pearse meant Belgium finished the game with 14 men. Even so, they never gave up and were rewarded for their endeavour when winger Ervin Muric cut a great angle and sped over from 25 metres out.
Lelos have title in their sights
Georgia took a massive step towards reclaiming the Rugby Europe Championship trophy with a scrappy 29-9 win over Russia in Krasnodar.
The Lelos now need just one point from their final round match against traditional rivals and 2017 winners Romania to be crowned champions for the seventh time in the last eight years.
As they have done all campaign, Georgia won without performing anywhere near their best although persistent light rain made it difficult for either side to get any real fluency in their game.
2/2 | Check out photos from #TheLelos vs #RugbyBears 22nd Encounter and 20th win (29-9) in the @rugby_europe Championship RND 4 match @GeorgianRugby vs @russiarugby in #Krasnodar Part Two pic.twitter.com/rB24rGGZNU— Georgian Rugby Union (@GeorgianRugby) March 11, 2018
Georgia’s continued solidity in defence will have pleased head coach Milton Haig, though, as they very rarely gave Russia a sniff and have still only conceded one try in the entire Championship.
Georgia’s first three tries came from their tried and tested rolling maul, while the greasy conditions had a part to play in the fourth as Merab Kvirikashvili aquaplaned into the in-goal to dot down a well-weighted kick.
Three penalties from all-time leading points scorer Yury Kushnarev after 16, 31 and 40 minutes, handed Russia a 9-7 half-time lead. Georgia’s only points before the break came when tight-head prop Anton Peikrishvili forced his way over after 25 minutes.
Ioseb Matiashvili punished an offence by Russia at the maul with a penalty six minutes after the restart and the visitors continued to dominate without adding to their slender 10-9 lead until the final quarter.
Second-row Karlen Asieshvili was credited with Georgia’s next try, on 66 minutes, after emerging from a pile of bodies following another well-executed maul. Seven minutes later Georgia used their favoured tactic to cross again, replacement Mikheil Gachechiladze getting his name on the scoresheet.
Matiashvili stroked over his third conversion but was off target with his next attempt a few minutes from time after Kvirikashvili scored. Scrum-half Vasil Lobzhandize created the try when he threaded a neat grubber kick through on the angle and the full-back just managed to get enough downward pressure on the loose ball after it had slid back to him off the body of team-mate Anzor Sichinava.