Spain will not be playing at the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France because it used an ineligible player in qualifying, World Rugby and the Spanish Rugby Federation said on Thursday. An investigation into alleged passport forgery is also underway.
The federation said World Rugby had decided to sanction Spain with a fine and the loss of five points for each match it played with the South Africa-born front-row Gavin van der Berg on the team.
Spain had qualified for its second Rugby World Cup — and first since 1999 — back in March, but it will now drop out. Romania will be taking its place.
The investigation was opened after a complaint by the Romanian rugby federation about Spain illegally fielding Van der Berg.
The Spanish federation said it was looking into the possibility that the player’s passport was forged and opened a disciplinary procedure to investigate the case. It has 14 days to appeal the decision by World Rugby.
In addition to the loss of the 10 points for the two matches in which Van der Berg played, Spain said it would also be fined in £25,000.
Van der Berg made his debut on 18 December as Spain beat the Netherlands 52-7 in Amsterdam in the Rugby Europe Championship, which also doubled as World Cup qualifying. Van der Berg was a second-half replacement and scored a try. He was a second-half replacement again on 5 February when the Netherlands was beaten 43-0 in Madrid.
Van der Berg arrived in Spain in 2018 and had to live in the country for three years to qualify on residency before his debut in December. But he reportedly returned to South Africa for four months in 2019, and went back there again during the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
World Rugby said last month it convened an independent judicial committee to examine the possible breach by Spain, saying a formal independent review was warranted. It said the Spanish rugby federation had been fully cooperative throughout the initial enquiries.
It is the second straight Rugby World Cup qualifying that Spain has become embroiled in controversy. In 2018, Spain, Romania and Belgium were sanctioned for fielding ineligible players and Russia advanced to the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
The committee noted that the suspended sanction of £50,000 related to the previous eligibility breach would now be payable.
In its only previous World Cup appearance in 1999, Spain was based in Scotland and lost all three of its pool games to Uruguay, South Africa and Scotland.
The Rugby World Cup is scheduled to take place in France from 8 September to 28 October 2023, in nine venues across the country.