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'The last World Cup wasn't so happy for us... we now want revenge'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Ian Cook/CameraSport via Getty Images)

This weekend would have been very different for Matias Moroni if the world hadn’t abruptly shut down three years ago. Instead of preparing for Newcastle to host London Irish on Sunday, he would likely have been on Jaguares duty in Melbourne. It was March 7, 2020, when the Argentine franchise last played. They were beaten 33-19 by the Sharks in Durban, the tournament was then suspended and the team from Buenos Aires sadly never played again, its stellar cast of players scattering to the four winds in order to get contracts to stay in the game.

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Moroni got lucky. Leicester snapped him up and he went on to become a 2022 Gallagher Premiership title winner, but even that success didn’t leave him immune from the pandemic budgetary cuts still affecting rugby around the globe.

Tigers originally said his deal would be extended only to reverse that promise shortly before last year’s final. Newcastle, though, eventually saved the day, giving the midfielder the security he needed to stay on in England.

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Nearly a year later, it’s a place that will forever be in his heart as his second child was born there last month. Yet, despite this happy tie that now binds Moroni forever with the north-east English city, he will always wonder what might have happened had the pandemic not nuked the Jaguares out of existence just seven matches after they had contested the 2019 Super Rugby final.

“It was really tough times,” said Moroni to RugbyPass, reflecting on the third anniversary of that last Jaguares match before its closure. “All the players in Argentina, we were really happy playing there, to play professional rugby and have weekends where we played home games – they were amazing.

Moroni Jaguares
Matias Moroni scores for Jaguares at the Hurricanes (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

“There were chances to play in Europe but because my wife had her own business in Argentina and my family, it was the best place for my rugby. I was really happy playing professional rugby in Argentina. The only bad thing was the travel. We travelled a lot. Six months of the year we were on a plane (for club and country), but playing in Argentina with our family in the crowd was really amazing.

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“We were near our family, had the weather, the culture and from one moment to another, no more Super Rugby. The UAR told us, ‘You need to go. Hopefully, you can find a club’. We were all left looking for a club to continue to play rugby. Some found it in France, in Italy, in England but those were really tough times coming to another country, another language, another weather.

“It was really a concern. We didn’t know what was going on. Covid was changing all the time, the rules, the flights. Luckily I found one [a club] really fast but the first moments were not good not knowing where to go, not knowing what was going to happen with Jaguares. They were really tough times with a lot of concern.”

Until that point, Moroni, the 2015 World Cup semi-finalist who only became a full-time professional in 2016 when the Jaguares first kicked into gear, used to negotiate his own contracts. Going abroad, though, suddenly meant getting agency help to prolong his career. “It was really sad to hear that there was no more Super Rugby, no more Jaguares,” he continued.

“When I was with Jaguares I handled my contracts on my own but when it was time to go I was in contact with a company and they found me a contract in Leicester to continue to play rugby. There were other Argies there and I really felt at home.

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“We had two good years and Leicester told me they wanted me to stay but one month before finishing last season, they told me they couldn’t, that they were not offering me a contract, so I had to look for a club to continue to play rugby because my objective is to be in the World Cup (in France).

“To be at that I had to continue to play professional rugby. There were really tough times but it was good for me to have to go away from my comfort and look for new things. It made me grow in other aspects of my life.”

Not that his latest workplace was completely alien. Moving to Newcastle reunited him with Matias Orlando, a friend he first played with way back in 2011 at U20s. Then there is Mateo Carreras, the speedster whose try-scoring exploits are lighting up this season’s Premiership, and Pedro Rubiolo.

Moroni Newcastle
Matias Moroni (right) with Mateo Carreras and Matias Orlando at Newcastle (Photo by Chris Lishman/MI News/NurPhoto)

“It’s nice to be with them and have barbeques when we meet in each others’ houses,” he enthused, adding that Argentina’s pre-Christmas run to World Cup football glory was the perfect excuse for them to celebrate where they are from. “Having the opportunity to see (Lionel) Messi win his World Cup was something that we will not forget for all of our lives.”

Life has recently become more complicated for Moroni, however. Having a new-born has impacted the daily routine and with the heavy demands of the Test rugby build-up to the World Cup not far away, the plan is for his wife and two children to head home to Argentina rather than stay in Newcastle while Moroni is on Rugby Championship duty and then away at the finals in France.

“Yes, yes, life is full. Tough times with maybe not sleeping as much but luckily my wife leaves me sleep in another room when I have to train so that I can be ready for training. Family is the most important thing. Without my wife, I couldn’t be doing what I am doing. We spend lots of time travelling and I know when we play for Pumas it is going to be a long time.

“I will make them go back to Argentina to have some help because being here (in England) away from home without help is really difficult, and now with two kids and with my wife still working she needs her time. The things they do for me I really appreciate it. It’s nice to have that support.”

It wasn’t that long ago when Argentina were in disarray, losing all six Championship matches in 2021 and finishing a grim European tour with a hammering in Ireland. It resulted in Mario Ledesma stepping aside, paving the way for Michael Cheika to take over and work some magic.

Now with feats such as away wins over the All Blacks and England in the bag, the outlook is very different heading into a France 2023 campaign that has a blockbuster beginning versus the English in Marseille. “Yes, we are in the direction we want to and the good thing is all the players and staff are all in the same direction.

“Hopefully, that is the correct direction and we are focused on the way we train, how we train to hopefully find the objectives that we want and do what we are expecting to do. I have six more games here in Newcastle. My focus is on that because if I do a good job here I could be selected and playing in a Rugby Championship and a World Cup is going to be an honour.

“Also the last World Cup wasn’t so happy for us. That wasn’t the team that we were expecting. We now want revenge, an opportunity to put the jersey of Argentina at the highest (level) we can. We are now seeing England in the Six Nations and also playing in England, I’m playing against them [their players] every weekend so that is going to be a really nice match to play (in Marseille).

“In the England squad, I now have a lot of friends but when the whistle starts they are no more friends, I play for Argentina, for my country. Hopefully, I will be there and I will win and start the World Cup with a good step.”

Why has Cheika been a good fit? “All the coaches have made us good but if I had to say one thing about Michael it’s the mentality. He just shows us the way, that we must trust enough in our system, in our culture, in our country, all the things that we have in Argentina that other countries don’t have, try to make that our strength and trust in that. That is the most important thing, that he trusts in us and tries to make us trust more in us.”

Moroni Argentina
Matias Moroni scores for Argentina in the 2015 Rugby World Cup quarter-final (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Now a seasoned veteran of 69 Test caps, the irony is that the soon-to-be 32-year-old Moroni, who lists Australia’s Samu Kerevi as his toughest opponent due to what happened at Twickenham in a 2016 Rugby Championship match, wasn’t tipped to become such a durable selection. Rather than try his luck in Europe as a youngster, he opted to stay playing amateur rugby with Club Universitario de Buenos Aires (CUBA) and an invite to play for Argentina 7s polished up his game in those early years.

“I was training in the camp of the Argentine union but it was really, really difficult because one week you are playing amateur rugby with your friends and the next week you were playing against professional players. That was why we were struggling… but it was the first step to seeing what professional rugby was like.

“After the U20s, I was not involved in what was called Pampas, who went to play in South Africa. They offered me some money to play for the sevens and I took that opportunity because it was one step nearer to playing professional rugby. I really enjoyed that time. Sevens gave me a lot of tools that I have used in XVs.”

Like what? “When you go to the floor you have to stand up as quickly as possible. That makes the opportunity for me to reload as fast as possible in defence. The intensity in sevens you can’t wait one second because if you stay one second on the floor they score a try. The most important thing in sevens is the intensity and how fast you have to stand up from the floor.”

That sevens experience had a lovely sign-off, Moroni representing Argentina at the Rio Olympics in 2016. “That was one of the most important moments of my career, being in the same place as all types of athletes, feeling the environment,” he enthused.

“You went to the huge gym and maybe in one corner you had the best boxer doing his own stuff, in the back you had the bikers doing their own stuff, each one focused on their job. That was amazing. I remember things about having at my back (Rafa) Nadal waiting for some food or about 10 steps from my hotel a tennis court having (Novak) Djokovic doing a warm-up… that was something amazing.”

So too being part of his amateur club’s title win in 2013. Their first trophy in 43 years became a catalyst for the Pumas to take an interest and Moroni was soon carrying the national team’s water before making a June 2014 debut versus Scotland as a sub and then going on to play at the 2015 World Cup as a semi-pro. “When I started playing I never thought I was going to be there. On that tour, I was injured for the first two matches (against Ireland). We knew it was near the World Cup and knew we didn’t have many opportunities.

“You had to take it if you wanted to go to the World Cup and this (debut) was the opportunity I was waiting for. It was really amazing, I came from the bench. The moment I realised I wanted that was the season before in November when I went on the tour for the last game against Italy.

“I wasn’t involved in the team but I was carrying the water and I said I want to be here. Looking at the boys smashing their bodies for the country, I said I wanted to be here and luckily seven months later I made my debut in Cordoba with my family in the stands.”

An inspiring story well told.

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