The explosion of rugby in Spain
You might be forgiven for thinking that rugby union barely registers on the radar of most Spanish sports fans, but its popularity among them is growing rapidly.
Clubs are now going professional, and the national side was one of 12 teams that took part in the first-ever Olympic rugby sevens competition this summer in Rio de Janeiro.
The rise of rugby union in Spain is arguably down to two key factors: the proliferation of English language/culture on TV and the country’s economic struggles in recent years.
With everything from English music videos to Premier League football available to Spanish viewers, it’s only natural that they begin to absorb some of those cultural imports.
Rugby union has become one of those things that, after decades of disinterest, you can now find aired in Spain on national channels, as well as having its very own channel (Canal+ Rugby).
There is, all of a sudden, a demand for the sport that was once deemed too brutal for Spanish tastes.
One also has to consider the social and economic context of rugby’s rise. While it is perceived as a predominantly middle-class sport in England, Spain subverts that notion.
As the country’s economy has declined, participation in rugby has shot up to previously unimaginably high levels.
“My dream is that, one day, people will look at Spain and think ‘wow, they are great at football and rugby!'” – Marco de Lorenzo
This sport belongs to the working class, as the idea of hard work and physicality taps in to the hyper-masculine psyche and gives people an outlet to vent their anger and frustrations.
This is why the Spanish national teams, both male and female, are dominated by state-educated players largely from lower-class backgrounds.
This is the main crux as to why the sport has both grown in participation and spectatorship. The connection of seeing someone from the same walk of life as you representing the country is rare in Spanish sport, and rugby now carries that torch proudly.
The influx of money in football has seen a growing disconnect between the working class and the sport, whereas basketball – the nation’s second favourite sport – has seen many players join NBA teams and forget their roots.
A voice of experience
One Spanish rugby stalwart who has witnessed its growth first-hand is Marco de Lorenzo, the national team’s head physio, who has spent two decades in the set-up – at times working with elite club Santboiana (one of the oldest teams in Spanish rugby union).
He told me: “I have never seen kids more hungry and willing to play rugby in my 20 years in this sport. It fills my heart with joy to see that this is no longer a sport forced upon our children.”
The 57-year-old, though experienced speaks with a youthful enthusisam for his sport, and shares contact details of of a player currently in the Spain set-up. His reason? He just wants more people to know about rugby in Spain.
Toward the end of our conversation, Lorenzo admitted: “It’s been so frustrating seeing our country try to be good at rugby but fail at every hurdle. But look at us now!
“The Olympics, World Cup… people are starting to believe the hype. I want everyone to know about how hard myself and this country have fought to make rugby big here.”
Shortly afterwards, I called the player he put me into contact with, Marcos Poggi – a 29-year-old fullback who, despite his physique, is softly spoken but passionate about his sport.
“Qualifying for the Olympics was crazy. The coach kept telling us to not get ahead of ourselves but, deep down, we knew that he too believed we could do it,” said Poggi.
“This was a unique chance to say ‘yes, we play rugby here!’ It was also a chance to help those who love rugby not feel weird for loving it. The country is crazy for it now.”
Increase in interest
Up until 2010, studies show that only 7% of the nation showed an active interest in rugby when the final of the national cup was aired live. During last season’s domestic campaign, 55% of population tuned in to watch the dramatic cup final, according to Estadisticas de Rugby.
This rise in interest has allowed the rugby to make huge progress, with the money available now allowing clubs to turn professional and offer their players a decent wage.
Attendances are on an upward trajectory, helped by low ticket prices. A sport for the working class has to cater to modest household incomes.
Academies have been established around the country, with children eligible for training from a young age.
In 2011, rugby became a part of the physical education curriculum in every school. Ages 6-15 are expected to participate in tournaments and activities.
Expectations are not high but, after defeating Samoa in the repechage final of the Rio 2016 qualifiers, this current Spanish side has the chance to make every kid in the country dream.
But there’s more to Spanish rugby than just the national team. The sport’s top tier is Spain, the Division de Honor, has been around since 1953 but it is only now that interest has reached the level it deserves.
Only 10 teams compete in the division, with the bottom side relegated to the Division de Honor B and the top side from that second tier taking their place.
It’s a brutally competitive sport; the winner of the top division also qualifies for the European Challenge Cup, allowing them to show their quality against sides from all over Europe.
In the last 10 years, five different teams have won the Division de Honor, which is a testament to its competitive quality, unlike the current state of its footballing counterpart, La Liga.
Add to that seven different winners in 10 years of Rugby’s Copa del Rey tournament. That speaks volumes for the unpredictability and growing entertainment value of rugby in Spain.
Sky is the limit
The current dominant power is Valladolid who, prior to last season, had won the league four years on the trot, including two Copa del Rey triumphs sandwiched in between.
Having said that, the most recent winner of both was SilverStorm El Salvador who stole the title from the clutches of Valladolid and trumped them 13-9 in the cup final.
With different cities, towns and regions sharing the honours around in Spanish rugby, it’s only natural that the sport is spreading at a rapid pace.
It taps into the fierce local pride that most Spaniards still feel for their towns, cities and regions.
The sky truly is the limit for Spanish rugby union and, if it continues growing at this speed, we may very well start hearing a lot more about it on the world stage.