Spain join Malta and Greece in the next phase of the Rugby League World Cup 2017 qualifiers later this summer, after their 32-12 win against Latvia at the Upesciema Stadions, Upesciems, just outside Riga, in a European Championship C qualifying tie.
The winners of that tournament this summer will become one of six European nations aiming to take three qualifying berths for the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in late 2017.
Spanish winger Hector D’Alessandro was the star, his genuine 11-minute first half hat trick the difference, the visitors also well served by full back Daniel Garcia who claimed 10 points and back rower Matt Dulley.
Spain coach Darren Fisher said, “It was a very difficult game, Latvia came very strongly but I couldn’t be prouder of the players, they showed the passion and believed in themselves and that’s what carried us through to victory.
“It’s a great stepping stone for us and our development and an honour for all the people back home watching the game. We had to show great courage and to move on to the next stage is massive.”
Both sets of players held a minute’s silence for Keighley stand off Danny Jones who tragically passed away during a game last weekend.
From the whistle, there was an obvious contrast, Latvia physically stronger with a bigger pack but Spain technically more proficient and keen to use their fast, agile players.
The visitor’s attack was extremely well marshalled by Ciencias XIII Valencia stand off Ezequiel Pérez-Fuster, who had the honour of scoring the first try on the road to the Antipodes, skipping clear in the eighth minute to the posts, Garcia goaling.
After a period of exchanged possession, D’Alessandro doubled the lead in the 27th minute as the ball was spread wide and he cut inside, Garcia with his second conversion.
The winger completed his treble with two contrasting scores, the first from a magnificent through-the-legs pass by loose forward Ivan Ordaz, the next speeding clear and away from 50 metres, as the Spanish continued to move the ball wide early in the tackle count.
Garcia missed both wide-out conversions to leave it 20-0 at the break
Latvia, with loose forward Mikus Ozols outstanding driving them forward, needed to score first in the second half but Spain started strongly; home full back Kristaps Lusins holding up Alejandro Gordon, but unable to prevent Valencian Warrior Andrew Pilkington, who dummied and went from 60 metres to cross.
Ozols went close and busy Latvian hooker Inguss Aivars was held up on the last tackle, the hosts seemingly further disadvantaged when Lusins was sin-binned in the 52nd minute, after a melee broke out caused by Kārlis Garokalns’s high tackle.
The 12-men rallied, however, Ozols sending Aivis Ašmanis close before crashing over himself in the corner to open the Latvians account, Armands Brovackis missing the conversion.
On the hour mark, Latvia were penalised for interference and Garcia kicked the penalty from 30 metres out to make it 26-4.
From the re-start, Spain knocked on and were penalised, Aivars and Garokalns going close, then Jānis Gabrāns beating three men on a superb diagonal run to score out wide, the conversion again missed.
Dulley’s fine break for Spain was halted by an interception as the game opened up in the closing ten minutes.
Pilkington broke clear and Aitor Dàvila was held up after good work from Ordaz and Pérez-Fuster, Garcia sealing the win with a superb solo effort, chipping over for himself and re-gathering to sidestep across from 50 meters, Pilkington adding the extras.
There was still time for late defiance from Latvia, hardworking Garokalns getting his reward from close in.
“We were disappointing in the first half,” said Latvian head coach Vilmars Sokolovs. “We knew the Spanish would start well and they caught us going to the flanks.”
“After the break we were much better and the game was a good contest but he first half was crucial. We feel positive about the future for rugby league development here. We will be better for the next World Cup.”
Tries: Ozols (56), Gabrāns (64), Garokalns (79)
Goals: Brovackis 0/2 Bajārs 0/1
Sin bin: Lusins (60 – running in)
Tries: Pérez-Fuster (8), D’Alessandro (27, 35, 38), Pilkington (46), Garcia (76)
Goals: Garcia 3/6, Pilkington 1/1