HE’S achieved a lot in his time, Felipe Contepomi. The former Argentine stand-off/centre competed in three World Cups alongside his twin brother Manuel, he played for some of the best clubs in England, France, Ireland and Argentina and he somehow picked up a medical degree whilst doing so.
He has even been linked with a comeback, as a medical joker for Montpellier (Glasgow’s opposition yesterday where his former team-mate, Mario Ledesma, is the forwards coach), who have some serious injury troubles but I have only one question for the one-time Puma: exactly how far offside were you when preventing Dan Parks’ last-minute drop goal from snatching a Scottish victory in the 2011 Rugby World Cup?
“No!” Contepomi has the good grace to laugh out loud at this slur on his reputation. “I thought I could have been a bit offside but when I looked at the video replay when we analysed the game afterwards I could see that I wasn’t. I came from number 12 but number ten didn’t come [rush up] so it looked as if I was totally offside but it wasn’t offside at all.”
Contepomi is back home in Argentina, where Land Rover have hired him as one of their ambassadors as they tour the William Webb Ellis Cup around the country. They are helping drum up interest in next year’s World Cup and, I suppose, in Land Rover. The former midfielder who used to take bodies apart now specialises in putting them back together, working in his father’s sports medicine practice in Buenos Aires.
Scotland face Argentina in two weeks’ time and the two teams have a long history of close encounters. Scotland won their first ever southern hemisphere series when Andy Robinson coached the side to back-to-back wins in Argentina in 2010, while the Pumas have effectively ended Scotland’s hopes at the last two World Cups. In 2007 the best ever Argentine team bested Scotland in a close-fought quarter-final in which Contepomi scored 11 of Argentina’s 19 points. Three years ago in New Zealand, they did the same in the group stages, beating Scotland 13-12 with Contepomi kicking a tricky conversion before his charge off the line late in the game forced the right-footed Parks to drop the ball on to his left peg... and miss.
It almost seems like the two teams have an unwritten agreement in place. The Pumas will allow Scotland to win when the stakes are matchsticks but Argentina triumph whenever the world is watching.
“No, I don’t think it is like that. Unfortunately we won in the last two World Cups but they are always very tight and close games and I think Scotland is one of those big names in rugby that, for us, it is always an honour to play against them,” says the ever courteous Contepomi.
“Scotland is the type of team that never gives up, especially when they play at Murrayfield. It’s very, very tough. Also Scotland is very similar to Argentina in rugby terms, with young players coming through with a new coach – and for me one of the best coaches in the world – so Scotland is one of those teams that will be progressing a lot in the next year. November will be a very difficult test for Argentina.”
But Los Pumas have just recorded their first ever victory in the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship (21-17 over Australia), which pits them against the biggest beasts in the international jungle twice a year, while Scotland are lucky to play the All Blacks twice a decade.
That fact, allied to the new Super Rugby franchise opening in Buenos Aires in the 2016 expansion of the competition, surely means that the days when Scotland can look on the Pumas as rugby equals are numbered?
“It’s hard to say,” replies Contepomi. “Having the Rugby Championship doesn’t guarantee any improvement. You have to work hard behind the scenes. Having the chance to compete in the Championship, playing Australia, New Zealand and South Africa twice every year, that can make you a better team but only if you work on developing your structures and making Argentine rugby better.
“But, as I already said, Scotland is one of the big names in rugby so when everyone thinks that Scotland goes down and down, suddenly they go up! I am not convinced that Argentina will beat them easily in the future just because we played in the Rugby Championship but I hope that this opportunity of playing in the Championship and then the Super Rugby will help us develop Argentine rugby and compete with all the big teams in the game.”
I confess to Contepomi that I am a big fan of Argentine rugby, despite those World Cup results, mostly because the Pumas seem to play the game in the right spirit, with latin passion and oodles of conviction. I am reminded of Robinson’s story about Contepomi and his half-back amigo Agustin Pichot, both commiserating with the then England coach after Argentina beat his team at Twickenham back in 2006, a loss that led to Robbo clearing his desk at Twickenham.
Robinson still mentions it as one of the classiest things he has witnessed in the game. A proud nation, the Pumas may occasionally finish second but the opposition never gets an easy afternoon. In the recent Championship series they tested New Zealand in a way Scotland have not done for decades and they always enjoy a beer with the opposition afterwards, win, lose or draw.
“I see the All Blacks that same way,” replies Contepomi. “It depends upon perspective as to how you see it. For me the All Blacks are the best in the world, they play always with a smile and they always share a beer after the game with their rivals. They keep all those values that we talk about very strong.
“I don’t think it is only the Argentines, I think it is lots of teams. It is not about professionalism, it is about trying to keep those little things together that makes rugby such a special sport. We don’t have to lose them, the respect for the rival, the sharing of a beer with the opposition, all those little things are what makes rugby special and we don’t have to lose it no matter if the game is professional or amateur, and many countries and nations they are working very hard to do that.”
I check one last thing on YouTube. It’s difficult to be sure but back in 2011 it looks like Contepomi only moved after Scotland scrum-half Chris Cusiter puts hands on the ball. Fair play.
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