Jubilant scenes greeted Sunday’s victory over Portugal that secured Spain qualification for Rugby World Cup for the first time since 1999 and only the second time in their history.
Supporters ran onto the pitch at the Estadio Nacional Universidad in Madrid to greet their new heroes as the final whistle sounded on the 33-28 win that guaranteed Los Leones a top-two finish in the qualification standings.
European qualification is based on results from the 2021 and 2022 editions of the Rugby Europe Championship and Spain’s performances across the two years could not have been more different.
Having lost their first three games in 2021, Spain faced an uphill task to qualify but Santiago Santos’ team turned things around to go on a six-game winning run culminating in the thrilling success against their Iberian neighbours.
As Europe 2, Los Leones can now look forward to a place in Pool B at France 2023, where they will face two of their 1999 opponents in South Africa and Scotland as well as Ireland and the Asia/Pacific 1 qualifier.
One of Spain’s objectives other than to get their first Rugby World Cup points will be to score a try – something they failed to do in 1999 in losing 27-15 to Uruguay, 47-3 to South Africa and 48-0 to Scotland.
RWC debut: 2 October, 1999 – Spain 15-27 Uruguay
RWC record: Played 3, Won 0, Draw 0, Lost 3, Points for 18, Points against 122, Win percentage, 0 per cent
Most RWC appearances: Nine players, 3 appearances
Most RWC tries: 0
Most RWC points: Andrey Kovalenco, 15
Best finish: Fourth in Pool A at RWC 1999
Qualification for RWC 2023: Europe 2
Most memorable match: Their first Rugby World Cup match against fellow debutants Uruguay was Spain’s best hope of a victory and they gave it their all in front of a small but appreciative crowd in the Scottish border town of Galashiels, eventually losing 27-15. All of Spain’s points came from the boot of Ukrainian-born playmaker Andrey Kovalenco. Just being at the tournament was seen as a victory in itself for the team of amateurs.
Standout moment: The 21-17 win over Portugal at Murrayfield in 1998 was ground-breaking in that it saw Spain qualify for their first Rugby World Cup. Kovalenco kicked six penalties in the win in addition to a drop goal from Fernando Diez Molina. Spain lost their next six games after that in the build-up to the tournament.
Iconic player: Alberto Malo
It’s doubtful that anyone was more deserving of an appearance at a Rugby World Cup than Spain’s RWC 1999 captain. Malo had appeared in 13 qualifiers including the 1998 win over Portugal, so reaching the finals for the first time was particularly special for the tousle-haired flanker.
Record breaker: Jose Diaz
The Valencia-born flanker’s record as Spain’s oldest Rugby World Cup player looks set to be broken. The former Castres player was 36 and 199 days old when he played in the final pool game against Scotland at RWC 1999. But the current second-row, Manuel Mora, is already older than him, having recently celebrated his 37th birthday. Captain and prop Fernando Martin Lopez will also beat Diaz’s record if he makes it to France 2023.
Did you know?
Spain’s full-back Francisco Puertas Soto was the most-capped player of all the competing teams to appear at Rugby World Cup 1999. He made his international debut against Portugal in 1984 and won the last of his 92 caps 15 years later as Spain bowed out of the tournament with a 48-0 defeat to Scotland at Murrayfield.
"It is a privilege to play in the tournament, regardless of how well we perform,” – Los Leones captain Alberto Malo, speaking on the eve of Rugby World Cup 1999.