San Sebastián’s Mini Estadio Anoeta was the setting for a Rugby World Cup 2014 reunion earlier this month, as four members of Spain’s tournament squad went head-to-head as coaches.
María Ribera and Ana María Aigneren, who captained Spain in France seven years ago, took the bragging rights as Rugby Turia beat María Casado’s Pozuelo and Aroa González’s AVR FC Barcelona en route to securing promotion to the women’s División de Honor B.
Ribera, Spain’s only professional female coach, has ambitious plans for her club in the second tier of Spanish women’s rugby having targeted promotion to the top flight within two years.
However, both Ribera and Aigneren have even bigger aspirations for the future of women’s rugby in the country, and hope their success can help open more doors for female coaches.
“I always want to do the best, and Ana and Eva [Martínez Gil] are the same,” Ribera told World Rugby. “I think that we can [win] promotion, if not the next year, the next, to the first division.
“It will not be easy, but we like to work and we are able. We are women coaching in a men's sport, it’s hard but we love it.”
“What is very sad is that people behind us, our older team-mates, just a few of them have decided to become coaches,” Aigneren added.
“Those generations, they haven't transitioned into coaching or to other roles in rugby. What I think is that we are a young generation — I'm 43, I'm young — and we could study to become coaches, society is changing.
“We now have our spaces, we are prepared to train high-level teams and [us] women, we now don't get the last coaches in the club.
“Now, clubs give the women's section good coaches and when we as players see that we can have our space as coaches in the future, it gives them hope.
“So, I think girls that are still playing right now, and maybe they're studying physical education, they can dream of being Spain's national coach because it's something that can happen.”
‘He just blends in!'
Promotion to the second tier of Spanish women’s 15s rugby came at the end of Rugby Turia’s first season in existence.
The club was born out of a merger between the women’s sections of RC Valencia and Tatami RC in order to create a powerhouse female team in the city.
Ribera, who represented Spain at RWC 2017 and Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 before retiring from the international game, serves as Turia’s head coach while Aigneren focuses on set-piece and skills.
Both are proud that the club is staffed almost exclusively by women. President Alba Gallart sits on the board alongside Itzíar Cardeñosa Herrero, Patricia Sánchez and Judith Lilián Saldivia Rodríguez, while Martínez Gil is technical director.
“We've got one guy helping us as a coach,” Aigneren said. “He just blends in with all of us.”
Like Aigneren and Ribera, González began coaching when she was still playing, helping out with the youth sections at RC L’Hospitalet.
However, it was not until after her retirement, which came following RWC 2017, that she began to consider coaching as a vocational option.
“Being very honest, what attracted me to coaching was that I was deeply depressed after hanging up my boots and did not want to leave the world that had been my life from the age of 13,” she explained.
“A month after returning from Rugby World Cup 2017 in Ireland, José Antonio Barrio called me to see how I was doing and told me that all the rugby I had in me could not be lost and that I had to share it with the new generations, and that the best way was to become a coach.”
González heeded Barrio’s advice, and although she has found the transition from playing tough, the former Leonas captain has enjoyed success.
AVR FC Barcelona had only 12 players when she joined the club in 2019, but two promotions later and González had a group of 35 to choose from when she picked her squad for the tournament in San Sebastián.
“What I enjoy most of being a coach is seeing how players evolve, grow and enjoy as I used to do,” she said.
“It was about forming a team and seeing how with consistency and work, players grow, learn and get better.
“It is easy to take players that are already formed and good. The tough thing and big challenge is to take a team in formation or only starting in the game.
“My option is that the best must be in the base and formation, because with a solid base, we’ll all win in the future.”
González admits “it would be an honour” to coach Spain one day, while Ribera states that her dream is to see an all-female coaching team lead the national team to a Rugby World Cup.
But, for that to happen then investment is needed. Although Ribera is professional, she is paid €1,000 per month to manage the academy and coach the under-18s, men’s and women’s senior teams.
“Most of the women coaches that we have had in the country, they've done it for two, three, four or five years until they had their families or they just needed to have better incomes,” Aigneren said.
“I think that is changing. There are more women in our national union and they are working for us to feel safe, to feel cared for and to feel like we count. But, we still are lacking a lot of spaces.”