Nineteen years have passed since Alberto Malo pulled on a Spanish jersey for the 74th and final time, yet the former captain and number eight has kept himself in such good nick that he wouldn't look out of place at the back of the national team's pack this Sunday as the current generation of Los Leones players attempt to emulate his class of 1999 and secure the win against Belgium that will take them to the Rugby World Cup for only the second time in history.

Although his trademark ginger hair has faded, Malo - who turns 54 next month - represented his country for almost 15 years in both sevens and fifteens, captaining Spain in both the inaugural Rugby World Cup Sevens in 1993 and six years later in what is, so far, Spain's only participation at the game's flagship tournament.

While the game had gone professional a few years earlier Spain's RWC 1999 squad was made up entirely of amateur players who faced games against South Africa, Scotland and Uruguay in Pool A.

Unforgettable experience

“Going to RWC 1999 was a very positive experience for Spanish rugby, more so after coming so close in previous qualifying rounds,” he says in the build-up to what promises to be the biggest game Spain has played in many years.

“The tournament was enlarged to 20 teams and we managed to qualify. It was an unforgettable experience for Spanish players and fans.”

The captain’s memories are still as fresh now as they were then.

“The game against Uruguay was one that we had to win, given that we had already beaten them before on tour,” recalls Malo, a stalwart of the UE Santboiana, one of Spain’s best-known clubs. "But it was a very hard game and we weren't able to achieve our goal."

The superior Uruguayan scrum eventually took control of the game and Los Teros pulled away in the final quarter to win 27-15. The next two games were played at Murrayfield. “We had no pressure to win, yet we did give our best. We lost 47-3 against South Africa, and 48-0 against Scotland," he recalls.

“Despite the difference in standard, we fronted up and we performed to the best of our ability.”

Huge step

After a decade and a half of stellar service for his country – his first cap was against Poland in October 1985 – he retired from international rugby. Despite fielding offers from different professional clubs in those early days, he chose to stay at Santboiana, in Barcelona, where he still lives.

With Spain on the threshold of qualifying for a second Rugby World Cup, the country is in the midst of a rugby-mania which included King Felipe VI attending last Sunday’s game in Madrid.

“Qualifying for Japan is a huge thing, it would allow Spanish rugby to go up a few steps because I doubt there is anything bigger than being in the world’s elite," he says.

“It would mean a lot to the game as it can generate bigger changes and growth than what we already have.”

As someone who bled for the red shirt, Malo is more than qualified to analyse the strengths of his national team. “I feel that they want to play good rugby; they give their best and play to what their coaches want, an attractive brand of rugby.

“The results show it has been the right path, beating Romania and Russia at home has been very important.”