Spain head coach José Antonio Barrio opens up to Sports Gazette about how success in the men’s and women’s game is helping rugby emerge as a popular sport in the country, and what needs to be done to take the next step and compete at the highest level.
When searching into Google for the most popular sports in Spain, the usual suspects appear right on cue – football, tennis, basketball and motor sports.
This comes as no surprise given that Spain dominated football on the international scene with consecutive major trophies from 2008-2012, not to mention that Real Madrid have just lifted their third European Cup in as many seasons.
Spanish legend Rafael Nadal continues to take our breath away on the tennis courts, Marc Gasol opened the doors for Spanish basketball players to ply their trade in the NBA, whilst Fernando Alonso is regarded as one of the greats in Formula 1 history.
However, another sport could easily find itself on Spain’s most popular list in the future and that’s rugby.
José Antonio Barrio, also known as ‘Yunque’ in Spain, is adamant that the sport is becoming even more appealing in his native country, especially with the younger generation.
“There’s been an increase all over the country in places like Valladolid, Madrid, Catalonia, Valencia and Euskadi,” he said.
“It’s starting to grow even more in schools and it’s beginning to become an attractive sport as it’s giving something extra to the kids’ education.
The statistics are there for all to see with regards to the amount of people interested in watching the sport, as 99,000 people witnessed Racing clinch the Top 14 title at the Camp Nou in 2016, whilst this year’s Champions Cup final was sold out in San Mames Stadium in Bilbao.
Yunque, who has been involved in coaching the women’s national sevens and XV set-up for almost a decade, is full of praise for his players as they’ve managed to perform well in both formats.
“I believe the players are a great example not only regarding their style of play but also their spirit to get involved in this sport,” he said.
“They are two different sports, with the same ball and pretty much the same rules. We use the same players but you’ve got to be clear in what situations and what we want to achieve in each one.
“I think Spain has always had a lot of talent, good players who understand and know how to play this sport and have certain qualities in terms of solidarity, fight and hard work.
“At the moment, we are building a team with many young players who could become superstars in a short space of time but right now, they are all growing up together and they are surviving in some tough competitions where they are coming up against the current stars of women’s rugby.”
Las Leonas’ head coach is convinced that qualification and progression to the quarter-finals at the Olympics in Rio in 2016 played a pivotal role in putting the spotlight on the women’s game.
Spain qualified for the Games with a thrilling win over Russia, which Yunque described as his most important with the national side, before beating Kenya and Fiji in Rio to reach the last eight of the competition before losing out to eventual gold medallists Australia.
“Before it was a very specialised business which garnered little attention but now, any success from the national teams is appearing in the general publications,” he said.
“In the last few successes from the women, they are showing up in the national news so I think the change since the Olympics has been very important.
“It’s the society we’re in where information and image is everything. The press can help us at every level and it’ll be good for the development of the sport. That’s why it was so important to make an appearance at the Olympics because it’s a way to be seen.”
Yunque also wanted to recognise the success of the men’s game, after their victories over Germany and Romania saw them make the front page of respected sports newspaper MARCA, which he described as ‘unthinkable in the past’.
2016 was certainly a sensational year for Barrio as he was awarded Scrumqueens’ Test Coach of the Year after leading the national side to victory in the European Championships, and beating Scotland to qualify for the World Cup the following year.
Explaining their decision to give Barrio the award, Scrumqueen wrote that ‘there was no coach better at switching his team from 7s to 15s and back while maintaining performance’, but the head coach was desperate to emphasize that it was a team effort.
“It was a great pleasure as it was a recognition to me and for the group as a whole,” he said.
“They are so special because whether they perform well or poorly, they have a spirit which is hard to find. The way they truly represent what it takes to play the sport, taking pride in the shirt and their lifestyle is what makes them special.
“In the end, rugby is played out as it is in life. We can be bad managers and there can be bad results but at the end of the day, they are the ones who put themselves out there and this spirit makes them overcome.”
Despite beating the odds on numerous occasions, there is still one thing that irks Yunque and that’s his team exclusion from the Six Nations.
Spain, who were initially involved in the Five Nations in 1999 before it became the Six Nations in 2002, saw their participation in the competition brought to an abrupt end, when the committee decided to substitute them with Italy in 2007 in order to replicate the men’s tournament.
When questioned on whether this issue can be resolved, Yunque detailed that their absence hinders them in terms of playing regular competitive matches, but work is still being done to try and reinstate them in the competition.
“We’re pushing our own federation to push the international federation in order to make sure this deficiency doesn’t lower the level of our national side, and we believe this will be crucial for the development of the women’s game in Spain,” he said.
“You’ve got to have patience but you can’t stop. We know that the Six Nations won’t let us enter as it’s a private competition but we’re looking for the formula to participate at the highest level. We believe that we are an exemplary team.”
Whilst leaving that situation in the hands of the Federation, Barrio is concentrating on improving his own side and there is one certain attribute where he is paying close attention.
“As a team, we’re looking for bigger players but we can’t find those with the same size as the British and Oceanic teams,” he said.
“Apart from the speed of play, finding space, using the full width of the pitch, our task is trying to work on tactical intelligence when facing power, strength and constant physicality that the other national sides possess.”
Although he is now solely in charge of the XV team, Yunque still keeps a watchful eye over the seven’s national side with the World Cup on the horizon next month, and he also sees a bright future for the sport in Spain as a whole.
“Making the Olympics is what allowed us to get more young girls playing,” he said.
“Having all of these events means the state are willing to give us support and certain companies such as Iberdrola take interest in the sport which allows to prepare for the successes that will come.
“We are currently preparing for the Sevens World Cup where I think we’re going to perform really well, and it’ll be another landmark for Spanish rugby.
“With regards to the XV, we’re trying to construct a rejuvenated team in 2020 which is strong enough to get the Spanish side into the next World Cup in 2021.”
Photo Credit: @ Federación Española de Rugby – Daniel Gonzales