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FEATURE Julian Montoya: 'My dream was to play one game, now I'm playing in a third World Cup'

Julian Montoya: 'My dream was to play one game, now I'm playing in a third World Cup'
10 months ago

The question was simple and direct. And Michael Cheika, the multi-champion former coach of Leinster, Stade Français, the Waratahs and the Wallabies before taking on the role of Los Pumas supremo, did not hesitate.

“He is in my top three players I’ve ever coached when it comes to dedication,” he said, hours away from the start of the Rugby Championship.

Julián Montoya, the Leicester Tigers hooker, has been Argentina’s captain since 2020 and his influence has been huge wherever he has gone. Ask Leicester fans and they will tell you.

Cheika continues. “He makes you want to be a better coach because of his commitment to the game and his team; because of the love he has for his team and players.

“Julián is an outstanding leader, an outstanding player, and outstanding person.”

Montoya <a href=
Argentina injury” width=”1024″ height=”576″ /> Cheika and Montoya are spearheading Argentina’s Rugby World Cup bid. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

He pauses for half a second. “Probably the other way around. He is an outstanding person first. That gives him the ability to be a great player and a great leader.”

When told about this, Montoya lets a modest smile break across his hitherto poker face. He is quiet, focused and not extremely expressive. He naturally returns the plaudits when he says: “Michael is an incredible coach, one of the best I’ve had. He has a different mindset when it comes to running a team.

“He brought his competitive edge and that ambition to win, win, win.” Equally important in a professional environment is his personality and willingness to engage, “he is open to talk if someone has a different idea.”

The utmost respect both Puma leaders have on and off the pitch for each other can only benefit the team that heads into the unknown in a Rugby World Cup which seems as open as it has even been.

The fixture list is robust but not insurmountable. Group favourites England up first,  hard-hitting Samoans next, neighbours Chile third and a last pool game against Japan which could decide who survives another week in France, with the potential hosts lying-in wait.

We watched the games with friends, it was incredible, a tournament that really left an impression on me. I remember thinking ‘I want this, I want to play for Los Pumas.

Montoya on the 2007 Rugby World Cup

For Montoya, the goal has always been simple: leave a legacy for the team and the country.

His dream took shape in 2007.

That year, Los Pumas had a lengthy preparation; first in Buenos Aires, then Florida, USA, followed by dismal matches in Wales and Belgium before their bronze-medal winning campaign that sent the country into a frenzied Puma-mania.

Montoya was only thirteen but as a pupil at the famous rugby school Cardenal Newman, he had the privilege of having the Rugby World Cup squad prepare in the two rugby fields which were his playground all his school days.

“We would anxiously wait for the breaks to watch them train,” he remembers.

Three former pupils who would also represent Newman FP, the club where Montoya first played senior rugby and where his brothers still play, were in that squad: the Contepomi twins and Marcos Ayerza, who were “my idols.”

“We watched the games with friends, it was incredible, a tournament that really left an impression on me.”

“I remember thinking ‘I want this, I want to play for Los Pumas.’

Montoya McCall <a href=
Saracens praise” width=”1024″ height=”576″ /> Montoya was a key member of Steve Borthwick’s Premiership-winning Leicester Tigers squad in 2022. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

It would take exactly seven years for his first cap, in 2014, by which point he had been selected for his age-grade provincial team, followed by Los Pumitas in two World Rugby U20 Championships and then the step up to the full national side.

He was elevated by former coach Daniel Hourcade, who is still a fan of Montoya, and described him as “a great guy and an extraordinary player.”

Hourcade says Montoya, “always stood out, both as a player and a human being. It was a luxury having him in our teams.

“We all knew he would reach the highest of heights. He not only had technical capacities, but he was extremely committed and made every effort to be a better player.”

When he came into Test rugby, the incumbent hooker was captain Agustín Creevy. So, for Montoya, only a couple of his first 50 or so caps were in a starting jersey.

“We all have a role to play,” he said. “I never counted how many Tests I started; if I came on from the bench, then it was what the team needed.”

My dream was to play one game for Los Pumas. Now I am preparing for a third World Cup!

He lives by that motto even today, ensuring it is a mantra for everyone in the squad, playing or non-playing. Montoya has been installed as the first-choice hooker since the end of 2019 and captain since the end of 2020.

The way he behaved when he was not in the starting XV showcased his personality and team-first attitude.

And as Hourcade says, “the way Creevy is behaving now that he is the reserve hooker is only a reflection of how ‘Juli’ behaved when he was aiming for the number two jersey: frank, honest and putting the team always ahead of personal interests.”

That first tournament in England also brought fond memories for the then-21-year-old.

“To me, the World Cup is the biggest thing in a player’s career. It is what you aspire to. My dream was to play one game for Los Pumas and now I am preparing for a third World Cup.

“In 2015 I was new to the environment, wasn’t fully aware of what was happening and I fully enjoyed it.”

His first World Cup match was against the All Blacks at Wembley, where he went on as a second-half replacement flanker because of injuries.

“I went to Ayerza’s side of the scrum so that no-one would notice I wasn’t a flanker.”

His hero from those afternoons at school watching Los Pumas train was now his team-mate.

The quarter-final win against Ireland, and playing many minutes in the semi-final against the Wallabies, are also evocative, visceral memories for Montoya.

RUGBYU-SUPER-JAGUARES-REDS
Montoya was a figure of great strength and inspiration for the Jaguares franchise. (Photo by JUAN MABROMATA/AFP via Getty Images)

Super Rugby came straight after his return from England and Montoya had the joy and good fortune of being a professional at home. Within four seasons, the Jaguares had made it to the final, losing to the Crusaders in Christchurch. The future looked really positive for Argentine rugby.

Japan 2019 was a kick in the teeth; the loss in the first game against France gave coach Mario Ledesma the opportunity to start Montoya in the following match. A hat-trick against Tonga and he never looked back, superseding Creevy who had never seen eye-to-eye with Ledesma, himself a legendary former Pumas hooker.

“I really enjoyed the World Cup in Japan. Did we get the results we wanted? No.”

Economic with his words, they say. Montoya has the ability to state what is needed, when it is needed.

As the history books tell us, Argentina lost against England and were eliminated at the pool stage. Left to limp home, despondent.

Super Rugby soon began and the unpalatable memories were going to be put to bed, but COVID-19 interfered. It would be the kiss of death for a Jaguares side, still in its infancy.

The world was closed and Argentina broke records for isolation. Players had to devise the smartest ways to train alone; Montoya trained in the solitude of his flat in Buenos Aires for 100 days.

Later that year, the All Blacks were finally beaten for the first time, on the Gold Coast. The resolve in the team and siege mentality after what had happened was immense and sent shockwaves around the world of rugby.

It challenges me as a coach, because if he is that good already, right, how do I make him better?

Montoya, a leader by then, was promoted to captain when Pablo Matera lost the role after he was suspended by the Argentine Rugby Union for offensive tweets he had written as a 19-year old.

He had a role to fulfil and Montoya stayed true to his motto.

Ledesma went and in came Cheika, who was a consultant in that Springbok-less Rugby Championship in Australia when the All Blacks were beaten and the two Tests against the Wallabies finished in draws.

Under Cheika, Los Pumas have beaten the All Blacks in New Zealand, England at Twickenham (both in 2022) and the Wallabies in Australia (in 2023). France 2023 is high on the agenda to yet again inject some Latin flair and passion into proceedings. The recent win against Australia has given ample hope after a below-par loss to the All Blacks.

“For this group of players to have achieved firsts, like those two wins, is important,” the coach said. “They help our confidence. Now it is about the consistency of following it up, search for that high standard all the time.”

Montoya believes their fate is in their own hands; the players must have faith in each other and their strategy.

“On the field it is about trusting our game plan. There will be mistakes as the perfect game doesn’t exist, but how we adapt to those mistakes will be the key.”

First up is England and as Montoya doesn’t want to single out opponents, let’s hear what the current England coach said about the hooker who became an integral part of his Premiership winning vintage.

Australia v Argentina - The Rugby Championship
Argentina, aided by Montoya, earned a thrilling win over Australia in last weekend’s Rugby Championship match. (Photo by Scott Gardiner/Getty Images)

Steve Borthwick told the Leicester Mercury the following, a year into Montoya’s time at the club.

“As a coach, I want to try and help players improve, achieve all their ambitions. I think the thing with Julian is that he is coming in at 28 years old and already one of best players in his position around the world and he wants to get better. And if he sets that example for the rest of our squad, that’s terrific. For me as a coach, it challenges me, because then, if he is that good already, right, how do I make him better? So it’s a great exercise for me to try and help him.”

After two years in a row as supporters’ player of the year, Montoya will certainly enjoy pitting himself against team-mates and regular Premiership opponents. Just as it was in 2007, when so many Pumas played their club rugby in France and began the tournament with a stunning win over the host nation featuring many familiar faces.

While fans and media will try to draw parallels between that competition and the forthcoming one, Montoya will not dwell on the past.

“It is a new cycle; if people want to find similarities, they will find them. But many years have passed, this is a new team.”

What remains the same? “The shirt, which is the most important thing of all.”

Comments

5 Comments
S
Stephen11 323 days ago

"Montoya, a leader by then, was promoted to captain when Pablo Matera lost the role after he was suspended by the Argentine Rugby Union for offensive tweets he had written as a 19-year old." Where you wrote offensive it should read "openly racist".

c
carlos 331 days ago

Frankie, great article! By the way, you know well that Cardinal Newman is an upper class school that also plays rugby, not a rugby school as you indicate. Even former President Macri is a graduate. I remember growing up that their changing rooms in the annex were the most luxurious changing rooms I had been to. Wonderful!

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