Despite a narrow 24-20 defeat in Belgrade, Spain’s patient, determined display ensured them their greatest outcome since making their international debut in May 2014.
Serbia need to win by a margin of 14 points to overtake the Spaniards, retain European Championship B and remain on the qualification trail for more action at the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.
And when full-back Brandon Janjic crossed with nine minutes remaining, Vojan Dedic missing his third shot at goal, the hosts were 10 points ahead – their widest margin – and on course to achieve their objective.
But Anthony Delgado’s stoic late touchdown, powering through three defenders, settled Spanish nerves and confirmed their passage.
With all three sides ending with a home victory and away defeat, it also meant that Russia, courtesy of their 18-point triumph against the Serbians last week, headed the European B table.
“I’m speechless,” said a near-overwhelmed Spanish coach Darren Fisher on the final whistle.
“We want to create history, this is absolutely massive, it’s so important to us. We are pushing so many boundaries and this result says we are here, we are making our mark,” he added.
Limoux full-back Luc Franco, ably assisted by Romain Pallares, imposing prop Raul Simo and back-rowers Raphael Garcia and Delgado were excellent for Spain, keeping the side calm, on track and playing in the right part of the field, not least courtesy of Pallares’ clever and varied kicks.
Serbia, under the pressure of needing points, squandered too much possession, Ilja Radan, Pedrag Keglic and youngster Vladimir Milutinovic among their best, but all associated were shell-shocked at the overall outcome.
It looked promising for the Serbians early on, Dedic’s crosskick on the last tackle after four minutes, being picked out by returning centre Stevan Stevanovic, absent for a year with injury, the try going unconverted.
Spain struggled to make ground initially but Pallares was felled kicking downfield and Custodians RL’s Raphael Garcia slotted over the penalty.
Rajko Trifunovic, later a threat returning the ball, fumbled Pallares’ kick and, from the resulting scrum on the Serbian 10 metre line, Chris Lopez and Pallares combined, Kevin Aparacio spun and slipped the ball out the tackle, Franco supporting to score and Raphael Garcia adding the extras.
Dedic was held up and Radan’s offload went forward, Tony Puerta losing the ball over the try line in response and Raphael Garcia missing a penalty when Pallares was again impeded from a kick.
Spain cheaply gave up possession from a drop out and Milutinovic stormed onto a slipped pass on half way, his diagonal run taking Franco over the line with him; Dedic nailing the touchline conversion as Serbia led 10-8.
Their advantage was almost immediately wiped out when they allowed the kick off to go dead, Simo showing great strength and persistence to reach over from close in, Raphael Garcia’s goal edging the visitors further in front.
Pallares just missed a 40/20, Milos Calic led the charge back and Daibor Vukanovic swept a pass off Stevanovic’s shoulder which allowed Keglic to send Milos Zogovic stepping over out wide, Dedic missing the goal to leave the sides locked at 14-all at the break.
Partisan hooker Dzavid Jasari was held out at the start of the second half, Daniel Garcia making ground at the other end as the clock began to become the Serbian’s enemy.
There was relief for them in the 50th minute when Dedic’s high kick was lost by Franco in the shadow his posts and Jonathan Kress followed up to score, Dedic goaling.
Raphael Garcia broke clear and Ivan Ordaz suffered a serious, concerning injury which caused a 15-minute delay, medical staff doing a superb job as he was taken to hospital for scans.
Spain knocked on in their own quarter on the first of a seven-tackle set and were then penalised for dissent, Jasari going close and Stevanovic putting Janjic over out wide.
In their haste to go for the defining try, Serbia knocked on in midfield and then went high on Franco, Delgado was just held out short on a turnover at the posts but made no mistake when given a second chance, skittling the cover for the touchdown that caused euphoric celebrations amongst the Spanish staff.
Spain will now join the winners of European C, either Norway or Greece, as third seeds in next year’s final European WC qualifying group, whilst Russia and Italy will be second seeds.
Such are the fine margins, Serbia is relegated to European Championship C for the first time in their history, with the winner of the Greece and Norway play-off promoted in their place.
Serbia: Brandon Janjic; Milos Zogovic, Aleksandar Djordjevic, Stevan Stevanovic, Rajko Trifunovic; Vojislav Dedic, Dalibor Vukanovic; Milos Calic, Dzavid Jasari, lija Radan, Predrag Keglic, David Andjelic, Vladimir Milutinovic. Subs: Jonathan Kress, Jason Muranka, Milos Aleksic, Djordje Stosic.
Spain: Luc Franco; Daniel Morales, Antonio Puerta, Alex Doutres, Hadriel Mehamed; Daniel Garcia, Romain Pallares; Raul Simo, Chris Lopez, Juan Mudarra, Kevin Aparicio, Rafael Garcia, Anthony Delgado. Subs: Ivan Ordaz, Aitor Romero, Fernando Vidal, Miguel Olivares.
Starman: Luc Franco was outstanding for Spain. The Limoux full-back caused Serbia plenty of problems.