Spain have made it to the top tier of international age-grade rugby for the first time after winning a sensational World Rugby U20 Trophy 2023 final against Uruguay.
And on the evidence of their performance in Nairobi on Sunday, they will look right at home in the World Rugby U20 Championship.
Both teams played some breathtaking rugby and the good-sized crowd in Nyayo National Stadium was treated to a spectacular 10-try match that went one way and then the other before ending 39-32 to Spain.
For Spain, there was joy but for Uruguay, the heartbreak of missing out on a second title after their last win in the inaugural final in 2008 was there for all to see.
The final rounded off a brilliant last day of action in the Kenyan capital, one in which there were also big wins for Scotland, Zimbabwe and USA.
Openside Monroe Job scored a hat-trick on his U20 debut as clinical Scotland secured third place in the U20 Trophy with a 12-try, 83-10 win over Samoa in the bronze final.
Earlier USA opened the final day’s action at the World Rugby U20 Trophy, securing a seventh-place finish with a comfortable 47-22 win over Hong Kong China.
But the home supporters inside the Nyayo Stadium didn’t get the finish they wanted after Kenya lost 64-10 to Zimbabwe in the fifth-place match. It was the Junior Sables’ biggest-ever win and highest score in the competition.
URUGUAY 32-39 SPAIN
Suffering from what seemed to be big-match nerves, Spain got off to the worst possible start when scrum-half Pablo Perez Merono was sent to the sin bin with only 45 seconds gone for tackling a player without the ball not once but twice, and Uruguay immediately took advantage when full-back Juan Carlos Canessa kicked the resulting penalty.
Guillermo Juan Storace then showed the form that has seen him start every game for Los Teritos in midfield with an electric break through the heart of the Spanish defence. When he was eventually taken to ground 20 metres out, the inside-centre had the presence of mind to pop the ball up to onrushing flanker Francisco Deffemiinis, who marked his return to the team by brushing off two defenders for the opening try.
Spain then spurned an opportunity to get points on the board when the normally reliable Beau Finnian Peart pushed his penalty attempt wide. And it was looking even bleaker for Spain when Uruguay scored again from a kick return, a feature of their play in Kenya. Canessa took the ball just inside his own half and then fed Juan González, who sped down the right touchline and then darted back inside. With Canessa converting, Uruguay had punished Spain to the tune of 15 points during the sin-bin period.
At last, Spain recovered from their slumber and once back to 15 players, they worked a good try for Borja Ibanez Escalera after left winger Mario Coronado Mico hit the line at pace and then switched the point of attack with a neat inside pass that gave the openside just enough space to find his way to the line.
By now, Spain were well and truly into their stride and a multi-phase attack resulted in a second try, loose-head prop Cristian Moreno Fernandez supplying the finish from five metres out. With Peart atoning for his earlier penalty with both conversions, the horror start endured by Spain had all but been erased.
Attack had dominated defence up to that point but Spain’s next points came about thanks to a brilliant turnover penalty won by Daniel Catanzaro Omati. Peart backed himself from 45 metres out and slotted the three points.
With half an hour gone, Spain had the lead for the first time and they extended it further as they completely dominated the latter stages of the first half, Escalera scoring his second after the powerful-built centre Catanzaro Omati had softened up the Los Teritos defence on the crash-ball from a strong scrum platform.
Referee Saba Abulashvili’s whistle blew for half-time as soon as the flags were raised to signal Peart’s conversion was good but, in reality, Spain wouldn’t have wanted play to come to a stop.
Indeed, it was Uruguay who started the second half as they had done the first, on top. Uruguay’s set-piece had been solidified by some important half-time substitutions but if Los Teritos were going to get back in the match, the feeling was that it would be down to their slick-handling backs and four minutes after the restart they showed their class. A big carry by Storace had Spain back-pedalling before fly-half Icaro Amarillo’s put Canessa away in the corner with a brilliant behind-the-back offload.
A failure to exit from their own 22 undid their hard work though. Spain charged down a box kick clearance and won the ball back before spreading it wide to the left to enable Gabriel Rocaries to cross for his fifth try of the tournament.
Just when his side needed it most, Martin Civetta got Uruguay right back in it again, the replacement forward showing a brilliant turn of pace to race home from 50 metres out. With the conversion, Uruguay had pegged back Spain’s lead to just four points, at 31-27, with the final quarter approaching.
Uruguay then responded to Marcel Sirvent Sanso’s 48-metre penalty for Spain with their fifth try of the match and, this time, it was all down to the forwards. A powerful rolling maul saw them advance 30 metres into the Spanish 22 before brilliant hooker Máximo Lamelas decided to go for it and burst off the back. He was stopped a few centimetres short but there was no stopping replacement scrum-half Pedro Hoblog from close range. Canessa’s conversion would have levelled the scores but he sent his kick wide of the posts.
Spain’s brilliant breakdown work stymied Uruguay’s attacking efforts thereafter and they managed to close out a famous win with a try from replacement Diego Gonzalez a few minutes from time.