By Felipe Contepomi.
Life changes. Life keeps going.
I come from a big Catholic family, so I believe in God, and this opportunity to coach Leinster is what God has put in front of me.
When I was growing up in Argentina rugby wasn’t a professional sport, so I never saw it as a career.
My dream was to become a doctor.
Of eight brothers and four sisters I’m the only family member to follow in Dad’s footsteps (we do have a niece studying medicine now so hopefully she keeps up the tradition).
Dr Carlos Contepomi played rugby for Argentina in 1964. They weren’t called the Pumas until the ’65 tour of South Africa when a journalist’s nickname was lost in translation, so the Jaguar on our badge became a Puma. Dad was selected for that tour but instead he took up a two-year Fellowship in London.
I doubt he ever planned for me to become a doctor. By the time Manuel, my twin brother, and I arrived we were the sixth and seventh kids, he’d probably given up trying to shape the destiny of his children. He discussed career paths with my oldest brother – Juan Pablo became a priest – and while we’ve always had great conversations about the future, he was as much a friend as a father. Maybe he was tired by the time we arrived!
My mother passed away last year but every Sunday the Contepomi family still gathers for dinner. Our home has always been a place where friends and family are welcome.
That’s my parent’s philosophy. When their close friends tragically died in a plane crash they took in their three sons and daughter. Even if we don’t have the same surname, they became my brothers and sister. It all occurred very naturally. Yes, it sounds weird for a family of ten to become fourteen and I should add two cousins who came from the province to study in Buenos Aires as they also became part of the household.
There were many voices around the table. Lots of strong personalities. I love that.
There’s a twenty-year age difference between my eldest and youngest sisters. The eight of us never lived together as Juan Pablo had left to become a priest before Maria Elena was born.
What’s truly amazing about Mum and Dad is that they encouraged each of us to pursue whatever we love in life.
There were never any rules about what we must do, or what we should become.
There comes a freedom with this upbringing. Of the twelve kids, nobody studied exactly the same subject, and none of us are working in the same profession right now. Manuel and I did play together for the Pumas – partnering up in the centre a few times, including every game at the 2007 World Cup when we reached the semi-finals – but we all embarked on different career paths.
Silvana is a physiotherapist who specialises in treating children with disabilities and she travels the world teaching people how to make wheelchairs. Francisco or ‘Pancho’ is an economist, Carlos José or, ‘Bebe’ as he is known, is a TV rock journalist.
Bebe’s very funny. His natural character has seen him become friendly with some of the most famous people on the planet. They are attracted to him rather than the other way around, I think. Like, Bono and Bebe are pals but all his friends are treated exactly the same.
Lia teaches deaf people, she’s involved in fundraising and she’s a mother. Manuel is currently working in the commercial side of ESPN and my little sister – well, she’s not so little anymore – has three children. A free spirit, Maria Elena started five careers only to quit after two weeks, but her love for yoga has become a career these past ten years.
Of the Villegas brothers one is a lawyer, another works in marketing, another is a businessman and Mechi, the eldest, she’s a school teacher.
The only barriers my parents put in front of us were to ensure certain values existed in all our lives – we were taught to respect people and never compromise when it came to hard work.
The main Contepomi family value is the pursuit of our passions.
For me, that still includes medicine. I remain a part of World Rugby’s anti-doping committee – reviewing Therapeutic Use Exemptions for players – but for the past three years I’ve primarily been a coach.
Coaching has to be all-consuming. The preparation can never stop; revising the previous game to avoid the same mistakes, preparing for future opponents and working to make individuals better in specific areas.
Rugby remains my passion. I’m very lucky to have had a choice since retiring in 2015 (I returned home in 2013 to finish playing with my club Newman). I also joined the family practice in Buenos Aires. Not many people are so lucky when the game ends, but I had completed my medical studies at the Royal College of Surgeons while playing for Leinster.
I worked for a while alongside my Dad but at eighty years old he needed to retire. I was interested in coaching so accepted a role with the Jaguares for one season, just to see if it could become a passion like medicine and playing the game had been.
Life has brought me brought me back to Dublin – living in Ranelagh with my wife Sofia and coaching at Leinster. Back to where I had six unforgettable seasons wearing the blue jersey. It’s funny how it all unfolded, but pursuing your passion allows you to live your fullest life.
I was influenced by Irish people from a very early age. Educated by the Christian Brothers in Colegio Cardenal Newman, I’ve memories of the Brothers playing hurling and wondering what the hell they were doing. I played all sports growing up, but we spoke the language of rugby in our house.
Rugby is the middle to upper class sport in Argentina, not unlike the way it used to be in Ireland before the success created by professional structures increased its popularity. That’s happening now back home, slowly.
Football is not considered a sport in Argentina, it is a religion. It’s strange to find an Argentinean who doesn’t love the game. This summer’s World Cup, for me and many others, was so frustrating. I feel sorry for Messi. He is one of, if not the, best players ever. He has been very unlucky in his time playing for Argentina. The problems have not been about the team or the players. It runs deeper. It’s about the politics of Argentinean football – it was never going to be solved by sacking one coach and bringing in another. They tried with five coaches in four years and we are still paying four of them!
Like almost everyone who grew up in Argentina during the 1970s and 1980s Diego Maradona was my sporting hero. As a kid he epitomised to me and many others what a sports person should aspire towards – talent is not enough there must be work ethic, intelligence and bravery – but as an example of how you should live your life I feel sorry for him; all the fame, maybe it is too much, he’s had problems with drugs and obviously that impacted on him. Still, for me, he has been inspirational. Any Argentinean who wears number 10 in any colours in any sport is hugely important. We also had Hugo Porta, the great outhalf. You cannot give the number 10 jersey to a defender. It is highly respected in Argentina.
Dad was a good rugby player – so was Bebe, he tells us – but Manuel was the best prospect in Argentina of my age group. He made it to the highest levels, but injuries slowed his progress and maybe he didn’t recover as well as he could have but he was always a fighter. We clicked really well on the pitch; it might not have always appeared this way because we’d be arguing a lot but something special could always happen when we were together.
At the 2007 World Cup we played in the midfield with Juan Martín Hernandez at outhalf. The victory over Ireland was special for me because I was up against so many teammates and friends but the two French victories – in the first game and to finish third – was what made the tournament for us.
Against Ireland we actually conceded two tries through midfield with Drico cutting us open for one.
“Manuel! You need to look after O’Driscoll, that’s your only job!” I remember screaming at him.
Easy, my brother, look after the best player in the world.
All the pressure was on Ireland that day at Parc des Princes because we knew any sort of victory would put us top of the Pool and into a quarter-final against Scotland with a real chance of making the semis. Ireland needed to score four tries. We were playing great rugby at that time – only the Springboks managed to stop us.
By then I had been living in Dublin for four years. My early days as a Leinster player were far from plain sailing. I missed the first European campaign due to an administrative lapse and in the second season struggled to get into the team after a neck injury. Yet I don’t have any bad memories of those early days. Declan Kidney signed the Kiwi David Holwell as he presumed I would not return. I focused on proving him wrong. That sort of adversity helped me later in my career.
When Declan returned to Munster, Michael Cheika arrived. Michael is an Australian guy of Lebanese descent. Somewhere along the line he must have some Latin blood in his family because he’s a fiery guy. That’s why we got on so well.
The way Cheika wanted to play rugby suited me, we’ve the same feel for the game but there was a lot to be done at Leinster, not just the team – facilities, culture, general attitude – Michael went about addressing all of it.
Then Shane Jennings and Leo Cullen returned from Leicester with a massive influence on playing for the jersey. Really, they brought back what Munster already possessed in abundance – everyone plays for Ireland with pure passion, but they’d return to their province willing to die for the cause.
We slowly built that same mindset.
The 2006 Heineken Cup semi-final defeat to Munster at Lansdowne road was difficult to swallow because everyone was expecting us to repeat the quarter-final performance that beat Toulouse in Toulouse a few weeks before. That was never going to happen. Munster was the team that had lost European finals. They had the hunger that only comes from failure at the highest stage. We hadn’t been put under that sort of pressure. The reality of that moment helped transform us into the team we eventually became. It hurt because it was Munster, but we look back and know what it did for the club.
It was a clash of rugby styles but in 2006 Munster had the right formula to become champions of Europe. You have to impose your philosophy on the opposition. We learned that the Toulouse performance, with sensational tries by Brian and Denis Hickie, would not be enough.
The grit we needed was apparent at Croke Park in 2009. I badly injured my knee after 25 minutes but it’s not a sour memory. It was all about Leinster reaching a final. In a team everyone has a part to play. If you are injured, you can still influence the performance. I approached Cheika the next day to offer my services as a scout or researcher, anything to ensure we won the final.
I knew I was joining Toulon that summer and had played my last game for Leinster. People say I left for the money, but Mick Dawson made a very generous offer to stay in Dublin that I turned down. I needed a new challenge – as the Pumas captain by then I was concerned about making it to the 2011 World Cup.
Honestly? I was in my comfort zone at Leinster. Experiencing the Top 14 was what my career needed at that moment. Eventually I teamed up again with Cheika in Stade Francais.
I wasn’t surprised by what Johnny did in Croke Park or against Leicester in the Murrayfield final because I was training with him every day. Everyone knew what we had.
The year before I could see Johnny felt he was ready. When you are young you always want to play – you are convinced you are ready when maybe you are not. But things happen for a reason.
Johnny’s become one of the best outhalves in the world these past ten years, maybe the best, certainly up there with Beauden Barrett. That came from his experiences.
Maybe we wouldn’t have got the last ten years of Johnny being Johnny. In 2008 he was called into the Ireland squad but injured his hand over in Leicester. I spoke to him: This is not your time to play for Ireland. The same happened to me in 1998. I was called into the Pumas squad but got injured so I missed what turned out to be the worst Argentinean tour ever. Most of the young guys never played for the Pumas again, it took some great players three, four years to be called back again.
Thank God I didn’t make that tour. Sometimes you have to respect time. There is a reason why things happen that we do not understand until receiving the gift of wisdom.
Much has been made of my rivalry with Ronan O’Gara. I think he was magnificent for Munster and Ireland, a quality outhalf, always a hard opponent to beat. I know we clashed but Rog is one of those players you always want to have on your team. Same goes for Denis Leamy. As much as we had some confrontational moments, ask those who played with them and they are the players any successful team needs. They defend their colours no matter what the situation. I have huge respect for both of them.
You see, the Irish and the Argentineans are very similar. Whenever we played each other they were very feisty games.
It’s simple – we were two proud nations striving to be ranked among the top teams. There is a certain quality Irish and Argentinean players share. Even when you take them out of the Irish set-up – look at Donnacha Ryan in Paris – they will play with the same passion.
Same goes for us.
Now, put 15 of us against 15 of them, all those crazy players, it had to be the way it was.
It started with the 1999 match in Lens when we knocked Ireland out of the tournament to reach the quarter-final for the first time. I was so young I didn’t fully comprehend what had happened until the next day when we arrived at our team hotel in Dublin and saw all the Irish gear being shipped out. They were supposed to be staying there and had understandably planned to return home to face France in the quarters.
It was only when we got back to Argentina that we fully understood what had happened. Rugby had caught hold of the general populace.
Beating Ireland was huge, it still is.
On rejoining the Leinster squad after each international battle, I knew I was surrounded by men that would die for me because we were in the same colours again.
Cheika helped us bring that culture to the surface.
That’s the way Irish players play, and for me that’s how it should be – your team is all that matters. If your colours are blue or light blue and white that is the only place your loyalty lies. No matter what the consequences, the team must come ahead of everything else.
Rugby in Argentina today?
The Jaguares and Pumas are moving in the right direction, but tangible success will not happen overnight. We are twenty years behind most tier one nations because the first professional team in Argentina only came into existence in 2016. So, we are literally twenty years behind the evolvement of the Irish provinces and English clubs.
Now, we can avoid the mistakes of others and accelerate the process, but it will take time for the administrative arm in Argentina to become fully professional and for the public to properly understand what professionalism means.
There’s always been a passionate amateur club scene but many of these people are finding it difficult to understand the importance of prioritising the Jaguares, who compete in Super Rugby, in order to make the national team a tier one nation. And keep them there.
The right people are in charge; Mario Ledesma returned from his time with Cheika and the Wallabies to become national head coach and Gonzalo Quesada is running the Jaguares.
Both have gained valuable experience from abroad, mainly in France. In rugby if you want to improve you need to learn your trade away from home.
Three years ago, I was happily working as a doctor. Five years ago, I was a rugby player. For me, as a coach, I’m not focused on improving to return to Argentina, I’m just embracing this great opportunity to coach Leinster. I’m no futurist, I can’t worry about or plan too far ahead.
You cannot program life.
I told Sofia, “To improve as a coach we will need to leave Argentina as I need to be surrounded by cutting edge ideas from other parts of the world.”
She has made the real sacrifice by travelling with me to Dublin, but you need that support, because it is not easy. That I can come home to her after a mentally draining day is so important because you need to disconnect sometimes, for your personal well being.
An agent put coaching options in front of me. Leinster was in the pile. “This is my priority,” I told him, “This is where I want to coach”.
Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster made it happen.
It’s almost ten years since I limped off in Croke Park, my last game for Leinster against Munster, which happened to be the Heineken Cup semi-final when the rest of the world got to know Johnny Sexton.
So much has changed since 2003, 2004 when our changing rooms were portacabins in the Old Belvedere car park. Administratively, coaching, the academy, everything has grown into a really professional sporting organisation.
There is a reason for that. I was fortunate to see the beginnings of all this – when Leo and Shane returned, watching Cheika’s vision unfold to create a culture that is cemented into the fabric of our building in UCD and on the RDS pitch or wherever we travel for games.
We fight to keep that culture intact every day. It becomes a quest for constant improvement.
The only way to get better is hard work. It is not about Felipe Contepomi if Leinster’s attacking threat improves this season, just like it’s not on me if we are really bad! I won’t be knocking any balls on, it’s about what I can do to improve the coaching team. It’s about helping one or two of our sixty players get better in specific areas every single day.
We are a team, we will always be a team.
It’s nice to be able to say “we” again. Dublin is not home – that will always be my family dinner table – but it’s nice to be in the place I associate with so many happy days in a blue jersey.
It feels good to be back.
The Sports Chronicle brings you stories from the world of sport by the players, the coaches and the unsung heroes, all in their own words.
You can also check out our Podcast. Subscribe today for more.