I thought Spain were going to qualify for the 2019 Rugby World Cup with ease. I was wrong; qualifying is far from easy. Spain, as things stand, have not automatically qualified, if they will is shrouded in controversy.

Spain were hot favourites ahead of their clash with Belgium, a side who won one in ten. Yet, the Spanish side suffered an 18-10 loss, with the penalty count 28-5 against them. Such a disparity is unheard of in international rugby and gave the Spaniards no chance. Any momentum they built was promptly curtailed by the referee. 

The officiating team for this game were Romanian. The team that automatically qualified for the RWC as a direct result of Spain’s loss: Romania. The head of Rugby Europe, who allocate referees, is, you guessed it, Romanian. Spain’s request to change the officiating team, after victory over Romania, for the crucial game was denied by Rugby Europe.

To add to the already thickening plot, there was no Television Match Official, despite Spain specifically requesting one. And, in the immediate aftermath, the video of the game was removed from Rugby Europe’s website. A final twist is that Samoa revealed, two weeks prior to the game in question, revealed they were preparing to face Spain in a play-off.

At the final whistle, things turned uglier still. Spanish players chased the fleeing referee from the pitch. He was subsequently evacuated from the stadium. This kind of conduct is contrary to the spirit of rugby; yet, it is understandable.

The events raise serious questions about Rugby Europe’s integrity. World Rugby sensibly intervened and, alongside Rugby Europe, have conducted various review, eventually concluding that a replay was “in the best interests of the game.” 

The story does not, however, end there. World Rugby has since been made aware of potential rules infringements relating to player eligibility and have undertaken another review, this time into the aforementioned allegations. An outcome is expected within a fortnight.

It is clear to me that World Rugby are correct to want the game replayed. Justice, as the principle goes, must not only be done but seen to be done. Actual bias need not be proved to disqualify a judge – in this case the Romanian referee – but rather the appearance of bias is sufficient. It follows that a Romanian referee should never have taken the field. 

Equally, under World Rugby’s regulations, all those involved in the game are obligated to uphold public confidence in the “honest and orderly conduct of a Match” and there is an argument that Rugby Europe – and possibly the referee – have failed to uphold this. 

The refereeing appointment notwithstanding, the behaviour of the Spanish team and the eligibility questions complicate matters further.

Five players have been handed significant sanctions, and rightly so. Sebastian Rouet has been banned for 43 weeks for his part in the abusing of the match officials. The message is clear, and so it should be, there is no place for such behaviour in rugby.

Such behaviour may not, however, disqualify Spain. They are small fry when compared with the allegations of player ineligibility.

Instigated by Russia, Romania have been under the microscope recently. It seems likely that, following World Rugby’s disqualification of Tahiti for fielding ineligible players, Romania will be disqualified for their fielding of Samoan-born Sione Faka’osilea who has previously played for the Samoan Sevens team. His appearances for Romania thus contravene World Rugby Regulations. Resultantly, Spain would take the place of Romania in Japan.

Complex though the situation may be, the importance of these decisions cannot be overstated

Nonetheless, Spain v Belgium should still be replayed, in the interests of upholding the sport’s integrity. Whether or not Romania fielded ineligible players is beside the point.

But there may yet be another twist in the tale. Belgium and Spain, too, have been accused of fielding ineligible players .

In Spain’s case, the situation is complicated. Both Thibaut Visensang and Mathieu Bélie have represented France at U20 level which, according to current rules, would render them ineligible for Spain. Yet, at the time, a player was only committed to a nation when they played against another nation’s second-string side. Given that this does not apply to most nations’ U20 teams, Spain could be off the hook. 

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Belgium, however, fielded Victor Paquet in 2018 against Germany. Per World Rugby regulations, Paquet’s great-grandmother being Belgian is insufficient. Only if a parent or grandparent had been born in the country would he be eligible. 

Belgium may thus be disqualified, preventing a replay against Spain.

Complex though the situation may be, the importance of these decisions cannot be overstated. If Spain were to fail to make the World Cup, especially after such a farce, it would kill off the fervent passion which is building for the game in the football-dominated country. A perhaps once-in-a-generation opportunity would be missed.

But the ramifications are truly much wider than the future of rugby in Spain. The integrity of the Rugby Wold Cup, and international rugby as a whole, has been called into question. Rugby Union, which is so often praised for being ‘whiter than white’, risks tainting its image. World Rugby has made a good start in its handling of this case, but it must continue to be rigorous in its investigation of Rugby Europe. If there is corruption within rugby, it must be rooted out and sanctioned severely.