Spain’s ‘Leonas’ will be on the prowl in Bandon in the coming days as they use the west Cork town as their final pre-Women’s Rugby World Cup training base. Their stint down at Bandon Grammar School and Bandon RFC was set up by the club’s head coach Regis Sonnes, who was previously in charge of the Spanish men’s side.
Head Coach: Jose Antonio Barrio
Team Captain: Aroa Gonzalez
Women’s Rugby World Cup Record: 1991 (Plate runners-up), 1998 (Seventh), 2002 (Eighth), 2006 (Ninth), 2014 (Ninth)
Current World Ranking: 8th
WRWC 2017 Fixtures:
Pool B –
England v Spain, UCD Bowl, 2pm, Wednesday, August 9
USA v Spain, UCD Bowl, 2.45pm, Sunday, August 13
Italy v Spain, UCD Bowl, 2.45pm, Thursday, August 17
Semi-Finals, Kingspan Stadium/Ranking Games, Queen’s University, Tuesday, August 22
Finals, Kingspan Stadium/Ranking Games, Queen’s University, Saturday, August 26
Best WRWC Moment: Apart from hosting the 2002 Women’s Rugby World Cup in Barcelona, Spain’s most famous tournament memory came from the 1998 edition in Amsterdam where they defeated Wales (38-18) and France (22-9) on the way to finishing seventh out of 16 teams. Winger Isabel Perez, who was capped 46 times, starred with a four-try contribution against the Welsh and added a fifth the next day out against the USA.
Soundbites: Jose Antonio Barrio – “We want to thank each of the girls that were part of this dream. There are a lot of players that will not be travelling with us to Ireland but they will be with us in spirit. Selecting these 28 players was very hard given the strength of Spanish rugby and the competitive nature of the players involved, which made our lives harder.
“England, our opponents in the opening match of the tournament, are on a different level to ours and we know our chances really lie in the two other pool games. The way we perform against the defending champions will be important in how we move forward for the clashes with the USA and Italy. Our training camp with Ireland should give us the best possible preparation. We have a very good working relationship with the Irish, having already had joint Sevens training camps.”
Aroa Gonzalez – “Qualifying again for the World Cup was very important since we never have the chance to play high level matches. (Against Scotland in the play-offs) we proved again that Spain can beat a Six Nations team. We deserved to make it through and I think we’ve been proving it in every match, with every move, with every Spanish victory. It goes to show that we belong up there at the top. Even though we struggle, we fight and we achieve our goals.”
Did You Know?: Madrid’s Olimpico de Pozuelo are the reigning Spanish club champions, winning the ‘Division de Honor Iberdrola’ in May thanks to a 22-21 final victory over CRAT Universidade da Coruna. Maria Ahis, back from injury to make her debut for Olimpico, inspired a superb second half comeback as they came from 21-5 down. The scorer of a crucial try and late penalty, she was deservedly acknowledged as the player of the match.
Team Profile: The afternoon of Wednesday, August 9 has surely been featuring heavily in the summer dreams of las Leonas, the honour of kicking off the World Cup against all-conquering England and having the first crack at the defending champions in Dublin.
The UCD Bowl has been a kind venue before to the Spanish Women whose Sevens side won the Olympic Repechage tournament there in June 2016. One of the stars of that tournament was play-maker Patricia Garcia (pictured below) whose try double proved crucial in a 19-12 final success against Russia which clinched their place in Rio.
It is no surprise that 15s head coach Jose Antonio Barrio has included Garcia and ten of her Olympics Sevens team-mates for Spain’s WRWC mission. Their big-game experience from years of World Sevens Series action, coupled with the pace and skill-set needed to compete on such a stage, means they will not be overawed by higher-ranked teams.
It is no surprise that Spain have been one of the busiest squads in terms of playing warm-up matches recently, lining out against the likes of Hong Kong (41-18 win), Wales (26-21 defeat) and England ‘B’ (15-7 win), as well as joining Ireland for a joint-training camp in Bandon. Deprived of Six Nations rugby since 2007 when Italy replaced them to mirror the men’s tournament, las Leonas have been starved of top level Tests and many observers feel they deserve to be welcomed back into an expanded Championship.
Having cruised through the 2016 Rugby Europe Championship, last November’s two World Cup qualification play-off wins over Scotland – 10-5 in Glasgow and 15-10 in Madrid – showed that Barrio’s current crop are more than a match for Europe’s elite. With that in mind, their Pool B closer against the Italians should produce fireworks given the context of World Cup placings and Spain’s exile from the Six Nations.
There is the prospect of a European ‘B’ tournament being established next year, with Barrio and Garcia both publicly speaking about Spain’s desire to play in a Four Nations competition involving the likes of Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. The Spanish Rugby Federation have provisionally budgeted for four spring games in 2017/18 (including an away date with Scotland), and there is no doubt that an expanded Women’s Six Nations would be the desired outcome in the long run.
In terms of their World Cup ambitions, Spain will be targeting the top eight or seven after finishing ninth at the 2006 and 2014 tournaments. Inspirational hooker and captain Aroa Gonzalez is one of 15 players in the travelling party with previous WRWC experience, having come out of retirement to spearhead their qualification last year.
The INEF Barcelona stalwart typifies the emotional investment, the sacrifices made, and the sheer passion the Spanish women have for the jersey. As the squad held a final press conference before leaving Madrid for Ireland, a tearful Gonzalez spoke movingly about how much playing for her country means to her. “We are a team, we are a family, we represent all of Spanish Women’s rugby. Enjoy it,” she told her team-mates ahead of her international swansong.
First capped by Spain against Ireland in 1997, the 38-year-old front rower says she still feels ‘like a girl with new shoes’ when she gets picked to play for Spain. “Every time I get the chance to do it, I’m as nervous and excited as the day I played my first match,” she admitted.
Gonzalez, who has amassed a record 68 caps, heads up an experienced pack with the 59-times capped Rocio Garcia, vice-captain Isabel Rico, Elena Redondo, Lourdes Alameda, Maria Ribera, Angela del Pan, Diana Gasso and Paula Medin all returning from the squad that brought WRWC 2014 to a close with a 36-0 play-off victory over South Africa.
Up-and-coming 95kg prop Jeanina Vinueza, who plays her club rugby with Saracens in England, is the youngest member of the forwards contingent at 23, while there are a number of youngsters in the backs – including impressive 19-year-old scrum half Anne Fernandez de Corres, out-half Carlota Meliz (24), uncapped winger Barbara Garcia (25) and fellow back-three specialists Iera Echebarria (24), Amaia Erbina and Uri Barrutieta (both 20).
Out-half/centre Maria Ahis is the second new cap called up and was the match winner for Madrid outfit Olimpico de Pozuelo as they scooped their second Spanish club title this year. The hugely talented Patricia Garcia, Vanesa Rial, Marina Bravo and Barbara Pla, who have 133 Test caps between them, will bring plenty of guile and attacking thrust to the back-line.
Veteran full-back Pla is set to win her 50th cap during the tournament’s pool stages in Dublin. Rial, Erbina, Patricia Garcia and Bravo all scored tries when Spain ended the Scots’ World Cup hopes at the qualification stage, while Bravo was the lone try scorer in las Leonas’ 45-5 pool defeat to England at the last World Cup.
Cutting back that deficit and putting it up to England for longer spells will be a big motivating factor in the August 9 rematch. If they hit top form, Gonzalez and her team-mates are certainly capable of rattling the 2017 Grand Slam winners.
A solid first outing would have Spain in buoyant mood ahead of their ‘must win’ encounters with the USA and Italy. The Spanish are sandwiched between the Eagles (7th) and the Azzurre (9th) in the current World Rugby Rankings, an indicator of just how close their head-to-heads are likely to be. #BringIt
For more on the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup, visit the tournament website – www.rwcwomens.com. Buy your match tickets for #WRWC2017 now on www.ticketmaster.co.uk/wrwc2017 and www.ticketmaster.ie/wrwc2017.
SPAIN WRWC 2017 Squad – Backs (12): Patricia García (FER), Anne Fernandez de Corres (CR Cisneros), Carlota Méliz (XV Sanse Scrum), María Ahís (Olimpico de Pozuelo), Amaia Erbina (CR Cisneros), Barbara García (Olimpico de Pozuelo), Barbara Pla (Getxo RT), María Casado (INEF Barcelona), Uri Barrutieta (Getxo RT), Iera Echebarría (Olimpico de Pozuelo), Vanesa Rial (CRAT Universidade da Coruna), Marina Bravo (CR Cisneros).
Forwards (16): Aroa Gonzalez (INEF Barcelona) (capt), Isabel Rico (Olimpico de Pozuelo), Jeanina Vinueza (Saracens RFC), Isabel Macías (Olimpico de Pozuelo), Laura Delgado (CRAT Universidade da Coruna), Saioa Jaurena (Getxo RT), Rocío García (Lalin RC), Monica Castelo (CRAT Universidade da Coruna), Berta Garcia (CRAT Universidade da Coruna), Elena Redondo (Gent RFC), María Ribera (XV Sanse Scrum), Lourdes Alameda (XV Sanse Scrum), Diana Gassó (Gotics RC), Paula Medín (CRAT Universidade da Coruna), Ángela del Pan (INEF Barcelona), Carmen Pérez (Getxo RT).