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'We have a job for him in Chile for sure... he is a hero'

By Liam Heagney
The Chile team in Dublin after Friday's game versus Leinster (Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

It was Thursday afternoon in Dublin when Martín Sigren picked up the phone to RugbyPass and sounded as fresh as a daisy with the Chile captain’s run over and the countdown on for his country’s final game of their three-match European tour. After a fortnight in Bucharest for Test matches versus Romania and Tonga, the fixture against the Leinster reserves was to bring the curtain down on a remarkable breakthrough year for the South Americans, who qualified for their first-ever World Cup finals with their dramatic two-leg victory over the USA.

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It was an inspiring underdog story, but one with a heart-stopping twist specific to Sigren. But for his persuasive pleading with referee Luke Pearce to consult his TMO in Colorado last July, Chile would have spent their November contesting last chance saloon in Dubai, the qualifying repechage clinched by Portugal with an incredible last-gasp penalty versus the luckless USA.

Despite Rodrigo Fernandez’ astonishing try in the wet conditions in Santiago, Chile headed to the States a point down and their hopes appeared to have flatlined when faced with a mountainous 20-point deficit a half-hour into the rematch. Back they fought, though, and they were two points ahead when the USA were awarded a very kickable penalty with 90 seconds remaining.

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With AJ MacGinty quickly placing the ball on the tee and readying himself to convert, it seemed as if the prized Pool D games with England, Argentina, Japan and Samoa in France had just been ripped from Chile’s grasp. Except they hadn’t.

The American in charge of the Infinity Park video screen unwittingly kept replaying the footage leading up to the penalty award and rather than give home fans reason to cheer that they were about to win, the film instead encouraged an aggrieved Sigren to approach Pearce and with Chilean supporters loudly shouting for a review, the rest, as they say, became World Cup qualifier history.

“So there were 90 seconds left, I was involved in the jackal, I was involved in the play and he [Pearce] called a penalty,” said Sigren, jogging his memory back to the unbelievably tense sliding doors moment that ultimately ignited celebratory pandemonium amongst the Chile players, staff and fans. “At that moment I didn’t realise it wasn’t me he was giving the penalty against, it was an offside or a tackler not rolling.

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“But my reaction was it was my fault. I thought I’d become the villain of the story, giving a penalty away in the last minute, and I couldn’t believe it. I quickly turned around and looked at the screen just to double-check my actions because I thought I had judged it correctly. Luckily we were on the side (of the pitch) with the screen and we had been defending on our 22.

“We had behind us this huge screen, five metres by five metres. I turned around and I have to thank the guy who was running the screen because he started repeating the situation, my jackal, and that is when I realised the guy who was cleaning the breakdown, he neck rolled me. I had to go over to the referee, grabbed my neck and started telling him there was clear foul play, there was a neck roll. He wasn’t listening.

They [the USA] had the kicker already with his tee. So I just stepped in front of him and started insisting to him [Pearce] that he had to look, that he had to check on the TMO because there was a clear foul play and that I was neck rolled. He [the video guy] kept on repeating it and we had a good amount of Chilean people in the stadium and they all started cheering ‘neck roll, neck roll’. So the stadium started to realise what was going on.

“I have to thank the guy from the television as I wouldn’t have realised (the foul) and I wouldn’t have gone over to the ref to tell him (what really happened). He [Pearce] checked on the TMO and it was clear as light, the guy who cleaned the breakdown did a neckroll on me, so that was foul play and they had to turn around the penalty.”

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How weird that an American has unintentionally conspired against his own team. You hope he still has a job. “I hope he does and if it is not and he reading this, we have a job for him in Chile for sure. We can find something for him. He is a hero.” enthused the 26-year-old Sigren about a career achievement with Chile that was personally 20 years in the making.

He was six when he first began playing, his interest aroused by having a father and three older brothers involved, and he followed in their footsteps, attending a British school where learning English and playing rugby went hand in hand – just the thing for the impressionable youngster.

“That was motivation at the time, just hanging out with my mates, to play on the first XV and be part of the group of friends,” he explained, adding that his rugby influences were decidedly Kiwi. “I was a huge fan of the All Blacks and Richie McCaw was the guy to look at. He was playing in my position, he was such a role model and a gentleman. I always looked out for him and now I would say Ardie Savea. I wish I had the energy to play like him.”

It wasn’t until 2019, however, that the sport in Chile became ultra-serious for Sigren. Pablo Lemoine, a veteran of multiple World Cup campaigns with Uruguay and a try-scorer against the title-winning England in 2003, was appointed boss of the newly-founded Chilean high-performance programme. His ambition was to quickly mould their pathway in the same way he had done in his native country – the fruit was a batch of youngsters going on to ambush Fiji at the 2019 finals.

Walking the talk, though, was like scaling the Andes, the world’s longest mountain range which provides the backdrop to the Chilean HPC in the Santiago foothills. “Rugby was an amateur sport in Chile,” said Sigren, outlining the genesis of the massive transformation that has taken place in Chile. “Pablo Lemoine went to Chile with the objective of building this high-performance structure in the Chilean union.

“He is a special man, a tough man. He has managed to get influence over the boys, we all believe in him with everything. He went through the same lack of resources with Uruguay and he accomplished it, so he is just a tough guy. There are not lots of words but when he talks he is on point in what he says and in terms of strategy he was a mastermind in our qualification. All the strategies put in place to win both games, Canada and USA, went down just like he had planned.

“He imposed a professional structure with a professional commitment but with no payment or nothing in return for the players. Just the promise of glory, that one day we will have a good story to tell. That’s how it started, 2019 where we trained from 6am to 8am in the morning, weights, physical training and then on-field. Then all the players headed to university or to work. It was after 8.30am that we started our real life. I worked for a company that I had the brand representation for in Chile, a small entrepreneurial business I was running.

“That year was a huge test for us, a filter year where the ones who stayed were the ones who really wanted it, the ones who dreamed about it and who had to leave everything aside just to keep on pushing. Some guys worked in banks, multi-national companies, sports companies. There was a friend selling fruits, waking up even earlier to go to the fairs and then to train. It was regular jobs that could tolerate the commitment. Not only training but when we had tours, just getting away and not appearing (at work) for two or three weeks.”

Just when they felt they were getting places the pandemic struck. A professional club team, Selknam, had been formed to participate in the new five-country Super Liga Americana de Rugby (it has since expanded to six), but the inaugural season was shelved two games in. “We were going to get paid and everything was going to change… then they gave us the news that the tournament had shut down, everything was frozen and it had been postponed.

“That was a huge hit. Something we were waiting for, that we were dreaming about, lasted only two games. Those were tough times. We all went home for two months. They gave us dumbbells and stuff to keep on training and we all kept connecting every day via video conference to do the weights plan, a lot of yoga, a lot of meditation, and conversations just to keep the group together.

“There were two months of doing that, everything through video conference, and then they managed to get the Olympic permit that got us back on the field training. We really went through a lot of adversity to get to where we got. It was something we used as fuel, as an energy to keep on pushing to make it to the World Cup with the hope that things will change, that the next group won’t have to go through the same tough moments.”

With their ticket booked for a French adventure featuring September games across a 20-day period in Toulouse (vs Japan), Bordeaux (vs Samoa), Lille (vs England) and Nantes (vs Argentina), the Chilean sports minister has plans to redevelop the high-performance centre while World Rugby funding has been secured for the next five years.

“In terms of the rugby, I’m clear how it is going to go,” said Sigren about the participation of Chile at RWC 2023. “We are playing huge teams so it is going to be a really tough tournament in terms of that level, and then the other side of the tournament, I haven’t gone through that yet. I like to keep things more short-term.

“I have been just thinking of these autumn Tests and the league with Doncaster. I want to get to France and just live in the moment, be surprised by it. It is one of those moments you will remember for the whole of your life,” he continued, adding with regard to the upcoming South American derby: “In Chile you normally support Pumas. It is the country beside us, a team in the last World Cups that I support.

“We have a huge respect for them. They are a huge motor for the region and the knowledge they bring to the sport in the region is huge. I wouldn’t say it is a rivalry, it’s more a situation where guys who we have been following on TV now become your rivals.”

Sigren will now winter in Doncaster following a one-year Championship deal hurriedly agreed in August after nothing came of an initial approach.” It has been a really rich experience getting out of my comfort zone, a huge growth opportunity not only on the rugby side but also personally. I’m super happy with how things have been rolling. I really feel I’m in a space where I can keep on growing.

“My manager spoke about the club in April and said they might be looking for a back row but then they happened to be looking for a second row. Nothing happened so I just forgot about it. Then out of nowhere, I got this call in mid-August, my manager telling me Doncaster want me but they want me right now.

“This was Sunday and on Monday, I had the interview with the coach. On Wednesday I was signing papers and was flying to England on the next Tuesday. It was really quick but that was something I was dreaming of for a while so I felt I already had it figured out in my mind.”

Given his British schooling in Santiago, the experience has been brilliant. “English breakfast is something you don’t get in Chile and that’s something I have been enjoying,” he chuckled when asked what is the most English thing he has done so far. “One of my teammates invited me over to his place in Gloucester, I had a weekend with his family and that was just really nice, just seeing the different family dynamics, but breakfast is something I have been enjoying. It’s not common for me.”

Has the Chilean nutritionist been on his case in recent weeks? “I’ll let you know. I just did some measurements with the nutrition, let’s hope they come out well.”

POSTSCRIPT
It was 24 hours later, 25 minutes after full-time on Friday afternoon, when Sigren emerged from the Old Wesley end dressing room to put into the words the epitaph for the three-game November tour that had just been completed by Chile.

Test game defeats in Bucharest to Romania (23-30) and Tonga (10-39) had been followed by a six-try, 3-40 thumping from what was essentially a Leinster C team. There was an established figure in the guise of Rhys Ruddock, the 2019 Ireland skipper versus Russia, but he was hanging out with the latest cool kids flourishing on the fringes of the Irish province’s nourishing system.

The outcome wasn’t pretty for Chile. They had taken a fleeting early lead but flimsy defending repeatedly hurt them. Leinster mauled over for a pair of easy tries off the lineout and the rearguard was exposed again by a quickly tapped penalty from halfway, Sigren among those who didn’t react quickly enough to shut down the opposition scrum-half who went all the way.

Sigren Chile USA qualifier
Martín Sigren in action last July versus the USA in the Santiago rain (Photo by Javier Torres/AFP via Getty Images)

A yellow card for Matias Garafulic was the next setback and when Chile conceded again early in the second half, it was feared the 3-26 scoreline could blow out to embarrassing proportions. It didn’t, Leinster only managing two further scores, but the try that the visitors so badly wanted to reward their boisterous 150 or so supporters in the Donnybrook attendance didn’t materialise. Instead, a late five-metre scrum was the closest they came in a one-sided contest that ended with some argy-bargy back down the other end of the field.

Now, amid the clacking of studs in a busy Chile dressing room corridor, it was time for some retrospection from Sigren whose words arrived less fluently than a day earlier. “Tough lessons,” he said, massaging his back against a wall. “We took some tough lessons. We came to tour against bigger teams with bigger structures, with more experience in the game than us.

“We got a mixture of a little bit of everything we need to get better at. We had the physical test against Romania, against Tonga and now we had more than a physical test, a test of speed. So those are the lessons that we came to look for, that we are going to find at the World Cup. We are going to find physical teams and the speed that we are not used to. It’s tough lessons.”

On the basis of what had just unfolded in Dublin, it was impossible to imagine that Chile can be competitive at the World Cup. RugbyPass visited Twickenham on Saturday for England versus the All Blacks and it only further illustrated just how the money-spinning tier-one nations operate in a totally different stratosphere compared to the hand-to-mouth existence of the minnow nations.

Sigren, though, wasn’t going to let this end-of-tour non-performance cloud what had been the greatest rugby year ever for Chile. “People can just look at the result. It didn’t match the hopes of many people but there were lots of factors. We didn’t throw our strongest team out. We had lots of young players, especially in the backs.

“More than five players just got to this game who weren’t on the rest of the tour. It wasn’t our strongest team, but the factor of the long tour, being away from home, it has been a really tough year as well so that was weighing on the players’ emotions maybe.

“These are the toughest changing rooms. We weren’t looking for results in this game, we were just looking to make the people who have been following us, you saw the Chilean crowd here, we just wanted to make them proud, make them feel they can identify with what we put on the field and for that, you have to give your 100 per cent and I don’t think we did that today.

“I don’t think we played like we trained, I don’t think we put our 100 per cent, but you can’t be all negative. It was a great year. I won’t try to make this last game lose what we have built all through the year but it is a tough lesson we have to take. We have to drink that bitter drink we had today and really learn from it because if not we are just wasting our time.”

With that, it was time for a farewell fist bump. “I finish the season at Doncaster at the end of April… I’m going to need to rest a little bit because it is going to be a long season ahead, but I’ll be ready for the camps at the end of May with Chile.” All the best with that, Martín. We’ll see you and Los Cóndores in France soon.

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