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Spanish coach prepares for “last dance”

One of the longest serving coach in international women’s rugby - Spain’s José Antonio Barrio (universally known as “Yunque”) - has announced that he is stepping down, and has been interviewed by Hablemos de Rugby 

José Antonio Barrio – “Yunque” – has been head coach of Spain’s women’s teams for over a decade. Initially coach of the sevens team from 2010 to 2012, after a short gap, he came back to take additional charge of the fifteens team from 2014, leading Spanish teams to 7s and 15s World Cups, a Youth Olympics and an Olympic Games and in the World Series as a core team, as well as in the European sevens and fifteens competitions.

But on Monday he announced that, after 12 years in charge, he will be stepping down. The forthcoming European Championship will be his “last dance”.

Spanish rugby website Hablemos de Rugby (“Let’s Talk Rugby”) broke the news with an interview with Yunque, which included a look back at the World Cup qualification tournament in Italy last year, Spain’s upcoming games and the future for Spain in international rugby

Hablemos de Rugby – We will be sparing with Colombia later this month – will you be making the most of the game time to younger players?
Yunque – You defined it perfectly. Since we didn't get our ticket to the World Cup... if we had, this game would have helped us to warm up, but this is what we have got and we will try to get the most out of it with new blood that we have called up and that will take the field on the day.

HDR – How many times have you thought about what happened and the bizarre results in Italy? Everybody beating everyone else... I still don't believe it.
Y – You can imagine I have thought about it several times, especially remembering that the game against Scotland got away from us, but then if you think about it even having beaten Scotland, given the other results, it wouldn't have meant anything if we lost against Italy...  It's true that the one that killed us was Italy losing to Ireland, that one would have given us...  But it was tough, it was close, we had our chances. It was really close for us after beating Ireland but high performance sport is like that.

HDR – It's a shame given how hard it is for men to reach RWC and that our best hope had always been to see women there, we were used to it, like in 2017, where we fought for ninth place and came close to making the cut (5th-8th). It is going to be weird not to see Spain in 2021 RWC.
Y – Yes, we already knew it was going to be hard because we a spot was taken away. For 2017 RWC we played against the 6th placed Six Nations team for a World Cup place, this time we were being asked to take out the 5th and 6th... and it wasn't enough. It wasn't enough even with players giving their all, but others are equally doing their job and won the games that left us out of RWC.

HDR – It's what happens sometimes in sport, you have your bad day at the worst possible moment...
Y – Yes, it's true but it's also true that elite sport always puts everybody at its right place and we ought to make an important reflection, one that we must all do. Italy is a team that we used to beat every time, then it was a team that we were competing with neck and neck with and now they are the best of this group, or at least they were in that tournament, so I hope that this leads us to a deep reflection about what is going on and what can be done to turn it around.

HDR – We used to beat Scotland as well...
Y – But with Scotland we have been winning and losing. We had our chances against Scotland to break the game and we didn't know how to win it. It was a close competition between these four, we all beat each other, and besides France and England, which are on a different level, these teams are very close, but if we don't do anything, they are going to overtake us because they are starting to work more seriously than they used to.

HDR – You say that other countries are working very seriously and you talk about reflection... I guess this is a message to FER [the Spanish Rugby Federation] ... or to more people, to the union, to clubs... Everyone is moving forward, but we are going at a slower pace and we must do something.
Y – Sure, yes, we did an analysis after RWC qualifier, we talked what we thought about it and soon the results of that analysis, proposals and changes will be implemented. Because we effectively didn't match our target. And I believe that if you don't reach your goal some decisions must be taken and I believe FER must act if we want to keep our status. I know it's hard, I know we are covering all the fronts, betting on all fields, but we can't be delusional. If we don't speed up we will be left behind.

HDR – You say that there will be changes soon. How much of it is related to your social media posts saying this is 'The last dance'?
Y – (Laughs) Well, we will see how days go by, how Rugby Europe Women's Championship happens soon and then we will see where we are. Now we are focused on winning this Euro, which is for us a bit like the end of the cycle and we will then have to present a project for WXV, 2025 RWC that even if expanded to 16 teams it will be hard to reach because places are being handed to other teams... So we will have to give it some thought together.

HDR – Sorry to insist, but it isn't this the first time you have spoken about how your time at the head of the national team had gone too long, that you have your job, there are cycles, things that have happened, and that sooner or later... you can't be eternally in this post and you were going to step aside. It looks like, due to all what happened in Italy, all the years that have gone through, for the reasons you are explaining, the time is now.
Y – (Silent) Well, no... (Laughs) I can say that there will be changes. I will be in February, sure. FER must give it a thought. I did too. There will be an official announcement about what kind of changes will be made and I hope that, rather than about names, that must happen too, I hope and it's what we proposed, there will be changes of structures and working methods. It's not like we have done them wrong in the past, there are lots of things that we and the FER did right, and the proof is there, but it isn't enough anymore. We must decide where want to go. Let me insist that it isn't that important whether I am there or not, that's minimal, the change must not be about people but about structures and how things are done. This is a lot of change a lot and women's rugby is accelerating. We used to be in a very good position, top 7, top 8 at both XV and 7s and we now must decide where do we want to be.

HDR – We are lagging behind... these changes weren't implemented earlier because there wasn’t anybody to inherit power until now, or because you didn't take the decision. or union didn't right after RWC qualifiers…?
Y – Well, it is a bit about everything. Again, it isn't an issue about individuals. The idea is that we have worked in a certain way and we must change it now and do things differently. What could have favourable consequences for Spanish rugby if we are fair and straight with ourselves and ask what do we want to do, which may be to bet on just one thing, the other, or neither... But obviously to set a strategy and be coherent with it. Of course, it would have been different if we had managed to qualify for RWC, and we were very close, but probably a favourable result on the field, even with World Rugby grants, and everything going smoother, going to RWC with how important it is for players, staff... to change structures... If we hadn't done anything it would have meant just delaying changes that are necessary. And now is the time to do it, after the results didn't go our way.

HDR – Is it only a question of money? Or is it about mentality too?
Y – I don't think so. Money matters but I believe it's about mentality.

HDR – And do you see any mood for change? Like “hey, we are focusing on some things, but women are a bit put aside and even if we failed some days, if they don't work in the right environment reality will leave us out of that top 8”.
Y – I'm not that clever enough to judge whether money is well invested or not, I only can say that at least we must be honest with ourselves and know that if we don't do anything we are going down.

HDR – You are in overall charge of XV and 7s, or at least have done until now even if 7s are coached but started some time ago in 7s. Although you seem more focused on XV, how do you see the evolution of 7s? This new group does need a change or their path starts to look better, that even if we struggle this season this is the right path? From your personal experience, given that in the end you took the girls to the Olympics.
Y – To me, the sevens national team has the best possible coach, just like my staff. Pedro (de Matías) and Juan (González Marruecos) are two of the best coaches in Spain, we are in good hands, players are good, but it's a bit of the same. There are teams that are developing like Belgium or Poland and they are closing the gap. And you know that elite sport is very fair and is an answer to what and how you place your bet. So we must draw a strategy about what and how and from that point, then work. And sevens will experience the same as XVs with a good human structure. I believe we have the players, our coaches are some of the best we have in the country - even if they are my colleagues I'm not just trying to be affectionate, they really are and they are well recognised internationally. We need to know and believe, and not be delusional.

HDR – Sevens is at risk, but let's hope that even with limited means they keep core status... From what I gather, where we have more work pending is in XVs. I don't know if it’s the squad, or seeing less of the players that were important, but who are playing abroad, or due to age, or a lack of belief in the project...
Y – No, players haven’t stopped believing. It's not about them believing in this project, or another or in myself. Players are 100% “Leonas”, they would come regardless of who is at the head. It is more about the wanting to see a different kind of players, different profiles, for these tournaments, the situations we are going through, and also looking forward to what is going to happen with the next project, the next RWC and from that point to take decide about what kind of players... First, what kind of strategy will there be with 7s and XV. Then, what kind of players we have. And this will have to be done after REWC. This squad is about watching new faces, new profiles and checking that new blood is given the chance... they are our crown jewels, it's the team that if taken care of, we will be up there. If not, I'm not saying it's not possible, we will be out of top ten quickly. Even with the best possible coaches, that we currently have.

HDR – For this Euro, are we going to see again well-known faces, of a higher level, or have you decided to rest them this season?
Y – You will see them. Since a new project has not been outlined yet for the next cycle, we have talked with them is to see what kind of plans they had and some of them will come.

HDR – Is our replacement already picked?
Y – I don't know, I have no idea. I hope so.

HDR – That's a good answer. And will you keep a link, will you be an advisor, or are you done for good?
Y – I don't know. I will help Spanish rugby the way it needs, even as water carrier. There are many ways. The union will have to decide what does it want. I assure you I don't think that's what matters, it doesn't matter where I am, what is important... If they call me to help, I have no problem. But that's it. The important thing is what we already mentioned.

HDR – What has Alfonso (Feijóo, FER president) told you?
Y – They are analysing what is going to happen. They have a report and they are seeing what are they going to do and how. It's true that Alfonso has always proven to me his trust, which I thank him for, but they now must decide what to do of this project.

HDR – Are you disappointed after so many years at FER that they didn't do enough these last two years? When everything looked to be going so smoothly...
Y – Well, things happen and maybe the main culprit is me... Things are done with passion, as good as we can, I understand I did it like that, FER did it too. I'm not upset, I'm not sad, nothing at all, I just believe a change must be made and I hope it happens.

HDR – Yeah, but this change... Are you driving it or is it FER? It isn't the same if the main driving force is somebody losing trust in you, even if you say otherwise, than if it's you saying “this isn't working anymore, we must look for somebody else and change the model because we aren't going anywhere”.
Y – OK, well, yeah. I'm maybe a bit naive but I believe everybody gives their 100%, I believe FER does too, I gave my all during all these years and I leave thinking that at least I tried. And I think some very cool things were done, some very important ones. But now it's time for change. The union must decide if it can do it, if it wants to do it. But at least I ask them to be serious, OK, maybe not serious, simply aware of the decision we are going to take. It can be a very broad one, any decision may have a good rationale behind it, maybe we can't target everything. We will have to take a decision, or not, at least to set a strategy

HDR – If Alfonso Feijóo comes tomorrow and tells you “I give it a thought and the best outcome is to keep you as national head coach”...
Y – (Laughs)

HDR – You don't see it, do you?
Y – That's... I'm simply convinced that this is not important. That's not the debate. My cycle is over. I had two RWC cycles, an Olympic one. It's probable that some of these changes weren't implemented because I wasn't able to. So it probably fits everybody that there isn't a perennial national head coach.

HDR – I totally agree. When players leave Spain to play abroad, what kind of effect can have in our rugby?
Y – I think it's positive, but we must take care and think about domestic competition so the loss of these players doesn't pay a toll. Maybe thinking about what kind of league we have so everything is compatible. Players leaving to play abroad... Their experience is key both for them and their clubs when they come back. We need to work it out so clubs aren't that affected. If you lose 12 international players the overall level of the league goes down. It is all about finding a balance. It's good because they find a professional environment they can't find here. When they come back you see them behaving in a different way, because they are used to different routines, being able to rest and train professionally but we also have to protect our competition, which isn't often easy and in the end is the one providing players to national team

HDR – So they will leave when their replacements, the following generation, is ready to cover that absence.
Y – Yeah, I'm convinced that the WXV, which in the end has been done in a way to please the British, could still be an interesting competition after I have been talking with clubs. It is going to set competition windows. Once XV and 7s have their schedules, cycles will be set, we will be able to adapt our domestic competitions, and then clubs in some way will specialise almost for different seasons of the year. People will have a clearer idea of what to play and when with their club, whether trying to play abroad... It will help everybody. To draw something in the mess we currently have, with COVID, 7s tournaments that are scheduled, rescheduled... I hope that a year from now, when WXV kicks off, everything is clearer and unions, regional confederations and clubs can manage better what do they want to do.

HDR – Do you expect that the new 'director de desarrollo' (FER Director of Rugby) to give women's rugby a push?
Y – (Silence) I don't know. I don't know because so far I have no news about what he wants to do with women's rugby.

HDR – You don't sound too hopeful.
Y – I don't mean anything bad, I just say nobody told me... I know he is implementing changes, but nobody has said anything to me so I can only say I don't know.

HDR – Everything will depend a bit on that, Raúl 'Aspirina' Pérez is meant to be here to overview everything. I hope women's rugby is in his plans. I just don't know if resources will be enough for all. There is a concern about how it could impact women's rugby. Because if it already was the 'less lucky' front, I'm not saying ill-treated, let's see how women's rugby is now...
Y – I don't know, I don't know. I guess that once it is clear whether they contract him or not, we will know something. But as of today, I haven't been told anything. I could almost say I learnt the news through media.

HDR – You haven't talked to him, have you?
Y – No, no.

HDR – Nobody asked you either? I don't know, maybe for an advice after so many years, to know how things are, what must be improved, what must change...
Y – We went through a World Rugby audit, they agreed with everything, we were congratulated for the performance in Parma. During the audit we shared our analysis on where we thought we were failing, they agreed on everything... I don't know if we did it right or it was easy to detect what our issues were and from that day nobody hasn't told us anything new.