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FEATURE Felipe Contepomi's Pumas chase the 'road to greatness'

Felipe Contepomi's Pumas chase the 'road to greatness'
2 weeks ago

Felipe Contepomi has been there and done that as a player. Inductee at World Rugby’s Hall of Fame, Heineken Cup winner, holder of 87 caps and once his country’s record points scorer, he is back to square one as he faces his first Tests as Pumas head coach.

Undeterred, Contepomi grasps the challenge ahead, fully committed to his role, vision and goals. He has been preparing for this moment for several years and soon to turn 47, seems ripe for the task.

A world-class player in his long and fruitful career at Bristol, Leinster, Toulon and Stade Français, he returned for a final season at the Cardenal Newman club where he started playing a game he was born into.

His father Carlos played one international in 1964 before moving to England to complete medical studies (thus missing on becoming an original Puma in 1965), his twin brother Manuel was capped a couple of months before him in 1998 and both went to play a lot of rugby together. Manuel was involved in three Rugby World Cups and Felipe’s fourth and last was as captain in 2011.

Brothers Manuel and Felipe Contepomi were stars of the Pumas’ famous 2007 Rugby World Cup campaign (Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)

Having finished his own medical degree in Dublin, when he hung up his boots, it was to doctoring Contepomi looked. Yet, a coaching opportunity came his way and he hasn’t looked back. He learned his trade as an assistant in Super Rugby with the Jaguares, before a stint at his former province in Ireland, and then a role on the staff of the national side itself. Now, two Tests against a supposedly understrength French side and a third against Uruguay will kickstart his tenure in the top job.

“We are finishing the final details, completing our support staff which will be very strong,” a relaxed Contepomi begins when he meets RugbyPass at the Argentine Rugby Union’s training headquarters, an hour north of central Buenos Aires.

It is cold and the new supremo is fighting what he hopes is not the flu. The symptoms seldom trouble him during the hour-long meeting as he sets out his plan.

“Our purpose will be to inspire to get on the road to greatness,” he says. “Hopefully, we can be a team that gets experienced with excellence.

“I play to win. I like winning and haven’t met anyone who goes onto a field to lose. The big question is how to win consistently.”

Most of our players are playing in the northern hemisphere and we have a southern calendar which means they play rugby non-stop for a number of years.

The aims for Contepomi and his team are multiple, but the highest standards will be part of a constant internal evaluation. Continuous player development, meaning how each member grows and what value he brings to the group, will be high on the agenda. The squad has set parameters and values against which they want to be measured.

“Los Pumas shouldn’t be judged by a scoreline but by our actions. That is today’s dynamic; being comfortable in the knowledge we’ve all done all we can.

“We must focus on process, being convinced on what we are doing.”

Contepomi spearheads the group who will lead Argentina to Rugby World Cup 2027 in Australia. He doesn’t see it as starting from scratch but a continuation of what Michael Cheika started fifteen months before France 2023, when Los Pumas finished in fourth place.

His first squad for 2024, which we don’t discuss in detail, shows this continuity, with most players having been involved last year. Three missing featured in the French Top 14 final, a couple have been rested, others not included. Overall, many familiar names are present.

Julian Montoya
Leicester Tigers’ Julian Montoya is one of a host of experienced players called upon by Contepomi to face France (Photo by Gaspafotos/MB Media/Getty Images)

“Coming up with the list wasn’t easy because we have a lot of competition for places,” he says. “Most of our players are playing in the northern hemisphere and we have a southern calendar which means they play rugby non-stop for a number of years.

“We don’t have the players for seven months, but then we have them for almost five complete months, the July and November windows plus the Rugby Championship.”

With clubs paying player wages and the calendars a constant problem, Contepomi has been in touch with coaches in every club. “They have all been very receptive and we think about what is best for a player. The human factor is still the most important asset. If you don’t look after the player, it is a big problem and I prefer dialogue, as it usually leads to understandings.”

Professionalism is not about money. Behaviour is 70% determined by the environment and good habits help.

Fully focused on his team, Los Pumitas are also under scrutiny as was the regional professional competition, Super Rugby Americas, which has provided four members of his first squad.

“I’ve been seeing these players evolving for two years and I see huge potential in their development process. The learning curve is crucial and what they do now is very important.

“Los Pumitas have size and potential. It is up to us as coaches in the whole system to ensure they reach that potential. At Under-20 you are not the finished product, but there are players with huge qualities we must work to make better.

“Super Rugby Americas is of huge help as it gives a structure as part of a professional pathway which must have as many phases as possible. Players learn positive habits, how to train better, look after themselves.

“Professionalism is not about money. Behaviour is 70% determined by the environment and good habits help.”

Contepomi served a long apprenticeship within the Argentine rugby setup (Photo by Gaspafotos/MB Media/Getty Images)

Contepomi’s sparkling career and easy charisma have opened many doors and since taking the job, has thumbed through his vast contacts book. New Wallaby coach Joe Schmidt was a confidant from his Leinster days. He crossed the River Plate to meet iconic football manager Marcelo Bielsa in Uruguay. Chelsea’s Mauricio Pochettino, Inter Miami and former Argentina boss ‘Tata’ Martino, Ted Robinson from rugby league’s Cronulla Sharks, and many others have shared their wisdom. “I learn from everyone, it could be a club coach in Argentina who can offer something to me.”

Fabien Galthie has named a young France squad, many of whom, Contepomi says, could play in any Test side. Los Pumas host their perennial opponents in Mendoza and Buenos Aires on consecutive Saturdays.

My job will be for players not to buy what they read in the press. We will judge ourselves on how we prepare. And that must be the same against the French, the All Blacks or Uruguay

“When France toured Australia after Japan 2019 they also toured with 22 uncapped players,” Contepomi says. “And we’ve seen what Fabien (Galthie) has created since. I expect a very hard opposition.

“My job will be for players not to buy what they read in the press. We will judge ourselves on how we prepare. And that must be the same against the French, the All Blacks or Uruguay.

“I’ve learned my responsibility is to prepare players so they can perform, that they are ready.

“The habits by which we prepare for a game don’t have to change. The plan doesn’t change, it is the tactics that change.”

So how does Contepomi define success? “As a state of mental tranquillity knowing you have done all you were able to do, or you did what you said you would do.”


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carlos 20 days ago

Frankie, Frankie. First, you are avoiding mentioning that Felipe coached the Argentina XV that had the dubious honor of being the first team to lose to Brazil. His time as ARG XV coach was horrendous. He then only coached backs at Leinster. He is the one playing a non-10 as 10. That even my mother says that he is not a 10. Trust my mother, she’s been watching rugby since the late 60s and has very strong opinions.

Anyway, everything you quote here about Felipe are clichés. There is nothing interesting here. He said he wants processes but not results? A state of mental tranquility? Has he been smoking some strange herbs? No scoreline but actions?

And you let that bull dung float there without challenge?

C’mon Frankie, we know you, you can do better

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