FEATURE-Rugby-Rugby on the rise in Spain as World Cup looms large
By Richard Martin
BARCELONA, March 13 (Reuters) - Spain's rampant run towards the brink of qualifying for the Rugby World Cup for the first time in two decades has captivated the country and seen interest rocket in what used to be a minority sport.
King Felipe VI was among the 16,000 supporters that packed out the national rugby stadium in Madrid last Sunday to watch the team steamroller Germany 84-10 in their penultimate game of this year's Europe Championship - the premier competition on the continent outside of the Six Nations.
Victory next Sunday away to Belgium would see them into the World Cup in Japan, which starts in September 2019.
National federation president Alfonso Feijoo was Spain's coach the last time they were in a World Cup in 1999, and he believes qualification would catapult the sport's popularity in a country where football, basketball and handball have led the way.
"It would allow rugby to develop completely. The world will look upon us with different eyes, as a nation that can compete on the pitch and do things well off it," Feijoo told Reuters.
"We missed a big opportunity in 1999 and now we must harness the excitement that qualification will bring and we need to build a team that is competitive and won't be mismatched in the World Cup."
According to the federation there are 210 rugby clubs in Spain and 35,000 registered players, 10 percent of whom are female, with participation increasing by 10-15 percent per year.
Spain has also become a big player in organising top level fixtures. Barcelona's Nou Camp stadium hosted French rugby's Top-14 final in 2016, registering the largest ever attendance in European rugby, while Bilbao's San Mames stadium will host the European Champions Cup and the Challenge Cup in May.
Feijoo adds: "Rugby has been in fashion for the last three years and beating Russia and Romania and then Germany, with the King in attendance, is the culmination of a lot of hard work. Now rugby has a big place in Spanish society."
Spain coach Santiago Santos and his team have had to get used to an increased spotlight in the last few months due to the team's success.
A turning point came last month with a 22-10 win over Romania, who Spain had only beaten on two of their 35 meetings, which witnessed the biggest attendance at a national team rugby game.
Last Monday for the first time ever the rugby team was featured on the front cover of sports newspaper Marca, the biggest selling daily in the country.
"We're getting recognised more in the street, we can feel that we're making progress and Spanish society is noticing us more," Santos said.
"We're in the newspapers, on the radio but we haven't forgotten where we've come from. And we can't let all the attention distract us as we haven't qualified yet."
Although there is big homegrown backbone to his side, many members of Santos's squad were not born in Spain. The likes of scrumhalf Guillaume Rouet, who plays for Top-14 side Bayonne, and fullback Thibaut Alvarez were born in France and qualified for the national team through family ties.
STRENGTH AND PRIDE
"Having these players is a sign of strength and a source of pride," Santos says. "To have a strong team you need players playing in competitive leagues, so to have players from France is a clear strength."
Feijoo adds: "Some of them earn up to 15,000 euros ($18,504) per month with their clubs and they come here for 75 euros per day, so they're not playing for financial reasons. They come for the love of the shirt and they're making their parents and grandparents proud."
Hooker Barnes played semi-professional rugby in England before moving to Spain's rugby epicentre of Valladolid in 2011 to join VRAC.
"I thought Spain was just summer holidays and good food, I didn't know much about rugby there," Barnes admits.
As well as helping VRAC win five of the last six national championships, he works in outreach programmes to promote rugby in schools.
"Rugby in Spain is growing and you can really feel the potential. Rugby is on terrestrial television every week, there's a real interest," he says.
"Qualifying for the World Cup would be massive. After the Romania game the fans were on the pitch, the players were ecstatic, the coaches were crying. The emotion was everywhere.
"In my experience, once people see rugby and understand it they start to fall in love with it. We're talking about Japan 2019 but there's another World Cup after that. This is just the start." ($1 = 0.8106 euros) (Reporting by Richard Martin Editing by Christian Radnedge)