Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Spain's surprisingly successful season

Over the past few months Spain have without doubt proven to be the surprise team of the year so far.

In the Spring they achieved their first ever 4 win REC campaign. This included close home wins over their two nearest rivals for RWC qualifying Russia and Romania. Beating Belgium and Germany with comfort. Their only loss coming away to Georgia going down 24-10 in what was a very credible spirited performance. Indeed if it wasn't for the colossal disparity between the sides scrummaging ability, especially in the second half where the Lelos won a massive 9 scrum penalties, including winning 3 scrums out of 5 against the head on the Spanish put in, that match could have been very different.

They followed that on their summer tour to South America they went 3-0, grinding out two wins over an improving Brazil and a Chile team who were much better than they were in the recent ARC, which were ugly matches but most importantly still wins. Then capped that off with their most impressive result to date, a comprehensive 41-21 away win over another RWC level side Uruguay, who had just come off a 4 win ARC campaign earlier in the year and a very good result against Argentina XV the week before.

Los Leones are now on what is their best run of results over 90 years of international rugby. They are on their second longest win streak, only behind a run of 8 in 1996/97 (and included no RWC level nations but the likes of Czech Republic, Andorra, Poland, Belgium), and also have now seen their World Ranking rise to an all time high of 17 (and could even be as high as 16 if Tonga beat Samoa in the PNC).

However most remarkable about this success is the circumstances under which it has been achieved ...

Most inconsistent selection in international rugby

In not just recent times, but as far back as you can remember, Spain have had the most inconsistent selection and churned through the highest number of players as probably any other international side.

According to ESPN Scrum stats since 2000 it has been Spain have used 312 players the most of any nation in the world. 47% of those players have played in the Santiago Santos era since November 2013. Whilst in the 10 most recent tests since the RWC qualifying (which has effectively been the start of a new 4 year cycle for Spain) they have already used 59 players and handed out 21 debuts.

The number of players used by top 22 nations since November 2013 (source ESPN Scrum) showing that under
Santiago Santos Spain have awarded caps to more players than any other team in the world.
The only time they recently had a relatively consistent selection over a sustained period was over that RWC qualifying period in 2017-2018. After that it was back to the norm of changing half the team nearly every match, with players constantly coming in and out, although the South American tour where 3 changes for each test at least meant some rare continuity in selection (although that will not last as some of missing players will return and the next window will probably have a different team again).

In their last 10 tests, Spain have used 7 different starting fly halves, the only one to string a start together was David Mélé on the South American tour and he is about to retire, as well as 7 different starting number 8's, whilst at scrum half only once has Santos started a player for two matches in a row.

Only four players Fernando López, Álvar Gimeno, Manuel Mora, and Víctor Sánchez have been starters in all of the Spain's current run of 6 straight victories.

Spain have for the most part been up against opponents who have experience of appearing at past RWC and with considerably more settled selections. This was shown in the differences in cap totals against their teams they are up against. In their wins this year over Romania and Uruguay for example, Los Leones starting XV had an average of 15-16 caps, whilst their opponents both had an average of 44.

Even if Spain do have some players like Mickael de Marco, or David Mélé who have much more experience than just looking at the international caps lets on, it still shows the difference between sides who have kept a more consistent selection and one that has not.

The only other nations who are typically similar to Spain regarding this churn of players in recent times are Chile and Portugal. Although over the past few years those two nations have, unlike Spain right now, hit some dismal lows, as well as equally churned through numerous coaches, delivering more the underachievement you may expect from such unstable selection with so little continuity.

List of absent players from professional leagues

One of the factors behind that inconsistent selection has been the patchy availability of some of the professional players based in France, which if you take props out of the equation Spain actually have about as many as REC leaders Georgia, although unlike them not always reliably been in the selection.

In the past 10 games, of those Spanish internationals in Top 14 or Pro D2, the players who played at least half of them were Xerom Civil and Lucas Rubio (6), Mickael de Marco and Jon Zabala (5). All of whom were not regulars at their club which probably increased their availability status.

Image result for Charly Malié
Spain's leading Top 14 player Charly
Malié of Pau has still not played since
the loss to Belgium. Overall players
from Top 14 or Pro D2 have been just
16% of Spain's starting XV since then.
Others who played 20+ game domestic seasons such as Asier Usarraga, Fabien Perrin (2), Guillaume Rouet, Mathieu Peluchon (1) featured little, whilst Charly Malié, Marco Pinto, Fred Quercy, or Jesús Moreno did not play at all (nor did eligible uncapped players like Rudy Derrieux or Vincent Farré, or of course Samu Ezeala).

Overall in their 10 matches this season, 16% of Spain's starting XV has been Top 14 or Pro D2 professionals (average 2.4 players per XV), and there was only one such player in retiring Perpignan half back David Mélé in their starting XV that comfortably beat Uruguay.

A number of those names offer considerable top level experience, and if they had been available, would have very likely added to the team.

Considering they put it on the field so rarely, it is hard to know exactly what Spain's full strength first choice side actually is, but still we can say they were some way from their strongest possible lineup. More so than any of their opponents this year were against them. Russia picked their very strongest available side for the trip to Madrid, whilst Romania and Uruguay were missing just a couple of players.

Improving standard of domestic based players

One of the things that is deduce from this is the standard of domestic league players coming in appears to be clearly now improved compared to what it was around the time Santiago Santos took charge in 2013, or even compared to just 2 or 3 years ago in 2015 and 2016.

When his predecessor Bryce Bevin was in charge in 2012-13 and decided to ditch nearly all the French based players, the side went from recording a major upset win over Georgia and second place in the REC, to bottom within a year leaving their RWC qualifying hopes already in tatters.

It was then quickly understood this was not a winning strategy, and Bevin was sacked after just 7 tests, and the ship had to be righted again recalling the French players to avoid an REC relegation fight.

To think back then they would be achieving a 4 win REC campaign and an unbeaten South American tour with just an average of 2-3 of their Top 14/Pro D2 players in the starting XV was far fetched. Indeed it was not long ago Spain were sending their annual weakened summer touring side to a loss against Kenya in 2015, or unsuccessful winless Nations Cup campaigns such as the one in 2016.
Image result for Georgia Spain rugby 2018
On their last two trips to Tbilisi, Spain
have been surprisingly competitive in
spite of missing a number of players.
In past years they used to ship 60+ points
with weakened teams in Georgia (who
themselves were also not as good then).

This past year or so has completely altered the perception of the depth that Spanish rugby has available. If other similarly ranked sides such as Russia, Romania, Canada, Uruguay, or even the USA had the equivalent number players of note missing as Spain did it is very doubtful they would have produced the same results.

Indeed Spain with a much weakened side have produced more competitive performances away to Georgia in Tbilisi for two years in a row than a full strength Russia have for the past decade or more. By comparison when Romania were missing a few players on their trip to Tbilisi in 2016 they got squashed 38-9, whilst Canada shipped 50+ points on their last visit in November 2017.

They also beat a Brazilian side that in the ARC this year scrummaged past Canada, and also pushed USA away from home very close. Again with many more players missing than either of those had. Also in the ARC we saw Uruguay beat Canada with 14 men, and USA away from home, both of whom were missing fewer players than the Spain side that just beat them comfortably.

Spanish tenacity in defence has been key to the run of results

One part of this is Spain under Santiago Santos have become a team which, even not at full strength, remains capable of scrapping hard with determined defensive efforts. As a coach Santos appears to successfully manage to motivate his players, even some of the not so talented ones, and others who are just turning up for one or two matches, to play with heart and emotion for the jersey.

Throughout his entire tenure, even in the most difficult circumstance like the 2014 Nations Cup where Spain had about 30 players missing and featured 12 debutants, to date we have never seen one of Santos' teams throw the white flag and concede 60+ point maulings away to Georgia like in 2011 and 2013.

It is these gutsy efforts in tackling which have been the building block behind recent run of Spanish results. We saw this against Samoa last November, where even with what was basically a scratch team which had just 3 players left from the previous REC starting XV, and suffered four injuries in the bruising first 40 minutes (which Spain led 3-0 until the last play of the half) and were forced to scramble about with out of position substitutions, even if they did not look like winning they were still holding on just 14-10 behind near the hour mark against a bigger stronger opponent before fading to a 28-10 loss.

GIF: An example of tenacious Spanish defence vs Samoa in November 2018. In this match Spain
had an almost completely scratch side, with just three players left from the REC starting XV. Only
two of their Top 14/Pro D2 pros in the starting XV, whilst their opponents entire starting XV were
pros in England, France, or New Zealand. Yet led 3-0 until the last play of the first half, and despite
suffering four injuries in that first half still only 14-10 behind near the hour mark.
This ability to be able to show fight and hang in games against on paper stronger opposition was also seen in Tbilisi against a near full strength Georgia in the REC last year. Santos rested nearly his entire starting XV for the RWC qualifiers, yet up until the final play the score was only 16-10. Against all odds Spain were in range of an intercept away from an astonishing result.

Also this year against Russia, where again they were probably the side who were threatening the try line less, it was the scrambling defence that won the game with two crucial tap tackles stopping tries. On their South American tour, they snuffed out the late pressure in both matches against Brazil and Chile.

Whilst once they got a good lead against Uruguay you knew it would be a tough comeback against a team who has not shown the tendency for concentration lapses and soft defence like we have seen at times in some other Tier 2 sides (including both Russia and Uruguay).

It is still hard for a side with such little consistency and cohesion (8 different 9/10 combinations in 10 tests ...) to play with much patterned fluency in attack. However having that fight for 80 minutes in defence, along with the basics of simply having a productive attacking maul (which has scored them a handful of tries this year vs Russia, Georgia, Chile x 2, Uruguay), a few individuals (Gimeno, Munilla, López, Mora, Tauli etc) who have really stepped up over the past few matches, plus of course a dose of luck (charge downs, intercepts, odd moments like players dropping scuffed penalty kicks behind their own line etc) has been enough to get them on the right side of several results this year.

GIF: The attacking maul has been very productive for Spain this year.

The future for Spain, how much further can they rise?

This year should be seen as a big success anyway, but in light of having such instability in selection and various players of note missing, it has been quite remarkable in light of this the results that Spain have achieved on the way to rising to their all time highest World Ranking.

All this does though is beg the question. If this is what Spain can achieve all in spite of those factors, then what is it possible they can achieve it they did have all their France based professionals more consistently, and if they had the more favourable World Rugby funding the RWC teams have?

It seems we very likely still have not yet seen the very best possible there is from Spanish rugby.

If they had qualified for the RWC, and in turn got better WR funding to add things such as new specialist staff, kept the continuity they had in their qualifying run, and enjoyed the month and half training camp before the tournament (which for Spanish rugby would be an unprecedented amount of preparation time together), maybe we could have seen it. Although obviously that didn't happen.
Image result for georgia espana 2019 rugby
There is potential Spain can build on this
momentum and, like their U18s this year,
become the main challenger in the REC to
Georgia in the 2020s and reach RWCs
with their rivals Russia and Romania
possibly facing tricky rebuilding periods.

This is without even yet mentioning of course that Spain have one of their most impressive generations of youth players coming up (who incidentally at age grade level have beaten their main RWC qualifying rivals Romania and Russia in 16 of their last 17 competitive matches). A few of those will be filtering into the side and be important players for Los Leones in a few years time (although they need to be wary of 7s attempting to steal all their best homegrown athletes).

Last year I wrote an article describing how both of Spain's RWC qualifying rivals Romania and Russia are ageing sides approaching the end of long standing generations and likely entering a potentially difficult transition period at the start of the next cycle following the RWC. And how this could throw the REC hierarchy behind Georgia really wide open which could offer a real chance for whatever Union that really got their act together to potentially reach a RWC.

At the time of writing though we did not anticipate that Spain would have done so well this year (in fact they have won at least 3 matches I had them as underdogs going in), as they too are going through a transitional period away from an ageing group that failed to qualify for the RWC.

Now that Spain have gained some momentum though, it is starting to look like they could be in the prime position to profit from a possible Russian and Romanian decline at the start of the 2020s and finally end a long 24 year wait to return to the RWC. It's still early days and a long way off, but with that goal still in the minds of fans, and with the future potential that they have possibly still yet to see one thing for sure is there has never been a more exciting time to be a Spanish fan.

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