Manex Ariceta Interview: Spain out to 'inspire' but also 'make something happen' ahead of Wales clash

After falling to a defeat in their opener against France, Spain are targeting a positive outcome against Wales at the World U20 Championship
©Shaun Roy/World Rugby

In just a year, Manex Ariceta has made his debut in Europe for Bayonne, won the World Rugby U20 Trophy with Spain and is currently captaining his country at the World Rugby U20 Championship over in South Africa.

Last Saturday, Spain made their U20 World Championship debut against France, losing to the three-time champions 49-12, but some positives came out of that match, as Ariceta acknowledged.

“Our goal for the game against France was to win,” he tells TRU. “I know they are the reigning champions and a country packed with talent, but we wanted to shock everyone. Unfortunately, the match didn’t play out as we wanted, even with a good outing in the defence and the set-piece. 

“France made it impossible for us to enact our game plan, and we made a handful of big mistakes that helped them to build a comfortable score. I am proud of what we did, and I know we can do even better. The lineout, maul, and counter-ruck were our positives, and if we can sharpen our offensive game plan, specifically concerning our decision-making, things will go better for the next two games.”

The 20-year-old, who is learning new things with each passing game, has been in the U20 camp since 2023 and was part of the team that made the World Championship dream become a reality.

“It’s a dream being here in South Africa,” he adds. “It’s a wonderful beautiful country, and I am very happy to have the opportunity to experience this. Going back to that moment when we won the Trophy in 2023 [v Uruguay in Kenya], we still didn’t believe it. 

“It was something that we dreamed of and fought for for years. For me, it was even more special, as it was my first year as a U20 international. For me, to be here as a captain of the Leones U20 means that I have to lead by example, helping my teammates, and listening to them.”

Spain started their World U20 Championship preparation back in January, but their first Test games only happened two months before the start of the tournament with fixtures against a Munster development side as well as Italy.

“We worked hard to prepare for the World Cup,” he explains. “The team joined together more than one month ago and started working out the details and finding how we could be a better and more reliable team when the tournament started. 

“I think we needed more games like the one we had against Munster and Italy, as it would’ve helped us to polish our game plan. Against Italy, that team felt good and that we weren’t that far apart from them. We did very well in the first half, mainly in the lineout or in the close-quarters defence. After the break, our conditioning dropped a bit, but we got a sense of what we could do.”

For Ariceta, Spain - who face Wales on Thursday before they complete the pool stages by taking on New Zealand - have a lot to learn, and only by playing in these tournaments will it be possible to dream of something big.

“I think the difference from them to us comes down to one aspect: experience. They have been playing at this level for a long time, and players come through their system ready to take the challenge. The conditioning and game knowledge come with more games against these Tier 1 sides. We still have a long, long way to go, and we don’t have the chance to train more times together, which helps to create this divide. Fortunately, some things have improved, and the best example was two weeks ago when Agustín Creevy came in to give us some pointers in the set-piece.” 

Learning off the likes of Creevy is something Articeta - who was born in San Sebástian - seems to relish and his club environment at Bayonne also feels like a good fit for his development.

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“Playing for a Top 14 club has been great for me, and I always try to share with my Spanish teammates what I’ve learned,” he admits. 

“It has been a truly great experience for me, and I just want to enjoy a day at a time. Still, I had to make sacrifices to be able to be here. I had to move progressively to Bayonne and change my studies to online classes, as the rugby and school studies clashed. For me to be able to play for a team that is 50 minutes away from my home was a unique moment, and it was even more special as my debut was in an EPCR Champions Cup match [v Exeter Chiefs back in January].

The Spanish lock and loose forward retells the tale of that first outing for his club.

“I can’t lie… I was very nervous the week before. It was going to be my first game as a Bayonne first-team player. My family and friends were going to be in the stands, so you could imagine how nervous I was but once I stepped onto the pitch, the anxiety just disappeared. I was just focused on doing a great game. It was an incredible day one I won’t ever forget!”

Ariceta moved to the club in 2020, and has gone from the ‘crabos’ level to the seniors, a journey that wasn’t easy and that most fail to survive.

“It’s a rocky road for players from the emerging nations to get to the top, as the number of kids giving up when they become seniors is still high,” Ariceta says. “I do think that things are progressing, as rugby wasn’t professional or close to that level in Spain, and now we are seeing some change going, allowing youngsters to have the option to become semi-pro or pro.” 

Looking ahead, Spain now have a decisive match to play against Wales in Cape Town. Richard Whiffin’s side lost narrowly to New Zealand in their opener and Ariceta tells TRU what his team must do to deliver a shock.

“For Wales, we are getting the team ready to make something special happen. Our pool is a tough one, but we have the mindset and ability to take them down. 

“If you ask me what we have to do better in this next match, compared to the previous one, my first answer would be kicking. Against France, it was a bit hit-and-miss, and if we want to limit the opposition’s attacking chances, we have to be more accurate when we punt the ball. Second, our defence has to be strong and cunning. We can’t just be passive and let them win the advantage line.”

But have the Leones come to South Africa to just enjoy the experience or something more? 

“Our goal for the World Cup is one; retention. We will do everything we can to avoid relegation and stay in the top flight of the Men’s U20 Rugby World Cup. If we can deliver that, I believe it will inspire future generations to engage with rugby and join the sport in our country.”

Before leaving Ariceta to go back to his captain duties, TRU challenged him to pick the three most talented players in the Spanish roster.

“Alberto Carmona (who is on the books of Toulon) for sure. His talent has impressed people in France and he is already a senior capped player. Guido Reyes, our prop, is the next one. He is a hard worker and has the potential to go big. We have a talented pack team, like Lucien Richardis, etc. I couldn’t have picked a better team to be a part of, and most of them have been playing with me since I was 15.”