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Tom Hamilton
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Tom Hamilton was brought up underneath the stands of the Recreation Ground and joined ESPN in 2011. He is now Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.
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European Rugby
Perils of the Eurozone
Tom Hamilton
July 17, 2012
Bizkaia Gernika will play in the Amlin Challenge Cup next year despite finishing fifth in the league standings © FER
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Tournaments/Tours: Amlin Challenge Cup | Heineken Cup
Teams: Spain

The battle to restructure the top table of European rugby is set to dominate the agenda over the summer but sparse attention has been paid to those struggling to survive on the crumbs thrown down from the ruling classes. The draw for the Amlin Challenge Cup slipped by without the same fanfare reserved for its bigger, stronger and supposedly more attractive older brother the Heineken Cup.

In the past couple of seasons we have seen La Vila and El Salvador turn out in the competition with them booking their place thanks to securing the title in Spain's Division de Honor de Rugby. But this year, the title holders VRAC Quesos Entrepinares will not be taking up the offer of European rugby due to the cost of putting a side through a Pool stage of Challenge Cup rugby and instead it is the side who finished fifth in the league - Bizkaia Gernika - who will be representing Spanish interests. With teams from Spain recording just two wins (achieved against Padova and Rugby Parma) over the past 10 seasons in the Challenge Cup, it is an expensive exercise to put a team through the six group games with, realistically, near non-existent chances of a quarter-final spot.

Spain is currently in the midst of a financial crisis and the country's first and second sports are suffering. Recent reports claimed that football in Spain is currently €5 billion in the red with 27 clubs currently in administration throughout their domestic game. In regards to basketball, the country's second sport, there are teams who cannot afford to compete in the top-tier Liga ACB. When you take into account that this is a nation that won the silver medal at the Beijing Olympics back in 2008 then it shows just how far in the mire Spanish sport is.

Rugby is expected to be hit hard by the Spanish government's enforced parsimony with the Federación Española de Rugby's (FER) new president Javier Gonzalez Cancho facing the unenviable task of having to cope on a tight budget in a game that is ever-increasing in terms of financial demands. The average budget of a Spanish side looking to compete at the higher end of the Division de Honor is €600,000 (£470,000) which in rugby terms, based on the reported fee, would get you Sonny Bill Williams for seven games.

With the Spanish league using a fairly convoluted play-off system at the end of the regular season, Bizkaia were losing semi-finalists and got the nod over fellow bridesmaids Getxo Artea who finished in sixth for next season's European competition. While it is a shame that we will not see the top two sides in the tournament next year due to the high expense, it is essential for their long-term growth. Last year's Challenge Cup side and previous season title-holders La Vila could not afford to pay their players and had to fire them when they reached the play-off stages last season due to the rigours and expenditure of their sojourn in Europe.

 
"The FER toyed with the idea of a representative side - Olympus Madrid - in the past when they competed in the 2009-10 season. But they managed to lose all six games conceding 45 tries in the process"
 

La Vila's president James Craig made an emotional statement prior to their play-off last season and highlighted the impact the Challenge Cup had on his budget.

"From a sporting perspective we can all give ourselves a pat on the back, however financially we have suffered this year!" Craig said. "Most of you will be aware that in a year where we had to ramp up our budget to compete in the European tournament without any support from the Spanish Federation, we have had our funding cut from the town hall, local & regional government and two of our major sponsors, not to mention that some of our smaller sponsors simply cannot afford to contribute as they themselves are struggling financially. It was always going to be a tall order."

Taking this into account and then coupled with the fact that the entrants in 2010-11 Centransa El Salvador are reportedly €700,000 in debt and are now struggling to live up to their previous best, this all begs the question to why any side struggling with the current financial situation in Spain would put themselves forward for the Challenge Cup next term.

But Bizkaia Gernika is no run-of-the-mill Spanish side. They are funded by the Basque government and are growing in popularity and support within the region. With Athletic Bilbao their shining light on the football scene, Gernika are the chosen side for aficionados of the oval ball game. The FER are confident that Gernika will fare better than their predecessors in the tournament and with their solid financial backing then one hopes that they will not encounter the same repercussions that their Division de Honor rivals have.

The FER toyed with the idea of a representative side - Olympus Madrid - in the past when they competed in the 2009-10 season. But they managed to lose all six games conceding 45 tries in the process. Romania have put forward their own version of Olympus in recent times with the Bucharest Wolves featuring in the Challenge Cup and they look to have reaped the benefits on the international stage with the Oaks acquitting themselves well in the previous World Cup.

Gregorio Zabaloy on the charge for Gernika © FER
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Spain has a strong presence on the Sevens circuit with ex-Northampton Saints fly-half Cesar Sempere at the forefront of their charge but with their players earning an average of €1,000 a month, there are calls to turn this aspect of the sport professional in Spain. The eventual goal is to have a fully professional division but with the budget cuts in Spain expecting to lower the FER's coffers by 20% it will be difficult and this is also in a season when the Division de Honor is being expanded from 10 teams to 12. The two new entrants are both fully amateur with one of the two - CRC Madrid - a team who has had to completely rebuild themselves after relegation for economic issues back in 2010.

It is clear that there is the desire in Spain to increase their foothold in rugby but it looks as if supporters of the Challenge Cup will have to wait a while to see a competitive side in the competition. Spain has a good representation in the Top 14 Orange and the PROD2 and while teams like Georgia have benefitted from this in the past, it may take longer for the nation to reap the benefits. It is a shame that we won't see the rightful side in the competition next year but for the good of the game and Spanish rugby in general, you hope that Gernika will pick up a win against Perpignan, Worcester Warriors or Rovigo in their Pool and make some headlines back in Spain for rugby reasons and not financial.

It is a sport that preaches about its global scope and while this should be applauded, bodies such as the ERC and IRB need to remain mindful of those still hanging onto the coat tails of their bigger brothers.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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