Monday, 27 July 2015

Preparing for the Rugby World Cup, Uruguay-style

How does an amateur side gear up for the World Cup? I took a look behind the scenes at Uruguay’s preparations and discovered how England’s group-stage competitors are squeezing in training between day jobs.

The amateur era? It’s alive and well. Just ask England’s Pool A rivals Uruguay.

While England are splitting their training between a luxury country house hotel in Surrey and a purpose-built rugby town in Colorado, conditions are rather more basic for the South Americans, who are widely expected to be the whipping boys of the ‘Group of Death’.

As an amateur team, the Uruguayans meet up daily for a couple of hours of early-morning training in their capital, Montevideo, before heading off to put in a full day’s work or study.

The typical day of captain Santiago Vilaseca, a banker, provides an instructive contrast to that of Chris Robshaw. While his England counterpart was put through a tailored training regime at Pennyhill Park before heading out to Denver for a high-altitude camp, Vilaseca has been fitting in training around trading.

“Thankfully, I have a boss who understands what rugby means to me,” says Vilaseca, a back-five forward with an easy-going manner and perfect English.

“Sometimes I can be allowed to arrive a little late to work because of practice. Without an understanding boss, it would be impossible.

“It’s a very tough thing to do, to have to work and train.”

It may well be a taxing way to prepare for a group that includes Australia, Wales and Fiji as well as England, but the 30-year-old claims he wouldn’t want it any other way.

“Being amateur is something we have to be proud of. It’s complicated sometimes, but it’s what we like.

“When we play against professional teams it’s going to be a big motivation.”

Third time lucky?


Uruguay earned the last available spot in the World Cup when they overturned a first-leg deficit to beat Russia 57-49 in front of 14,000 fans in October at the Estadio Charrua. It will be their third appearance at rugby’s global jamboree, with their campaigns of 1999 and 2003 yielding one victory apiece – over Spain in 1999 and Georgia in 2003.

Unfortunately, the 2003 tournament also featured one of the great tonkings of Rugby World Cup history, as England put Los Teros to the sword in gruesome fashion. So gruesome, in fact, that there’s some dispute in the history books about whether it was a 111-13 thrashing or a 113-13 thrashing.

But Vilaseca, who plays for club side Old Boys in Montevideo, is looking forwards rather than backwards – to September 20 at the Millennium Stadium, to be precise.

“For our team, this is a dream,” he says. “We’re just waiting for that moment.

“This is probably the only chance we’ll get to play against Wales, England and Australia. But it’s not just the teams we’re playing, it’s the stadiums as well.

“There’s a bit of excitement and there’s a bit of fear. The excitement is getting bigger and bigger. It started from the moment we knew we’d qualified and has just grown.

“We are very anxious to prepare well for our first game against Wales and we’re going to try and win our game against Fiji, but we know that it’s going to be very difficult.”

The majority of the national squad play for a variety of local sides around Montevideo, each of which represents a different neighbourhood.

Key personnel


The Uruguayans’ task has been made that bit harder by the withdrawal of their highest-profile and most experienced player, Castres lock Rodrigo Ortega Capo, for family reasons.

But the South Americans still have some high-calibre performers, such as big-kicking fly-half Felipe Berchesi, who moved to French Pro D2 side Carcassonne earlier this year.

Last month’s Tbilisi Cup showed that Uruguay still have considerable yardage to make up on their international rivals, with a winless campaign featuring losses to hosts Georgia, an Emerging Ireland side and Emerging Italy.

But Vilaseca is undeterred.

“We’re losing every team we are playing but we’re showing improvements. During the Tbilisi Cup we didn’t dominate teams but there were moments when we made things difficult for them. We have to try and compete for the whole 80.

“We will succeed at the World Cup if we can win a game and show to the world the improvements we’ve made. We want to show people we aren’t there just to have fun – we are there to play rugby and compete.”

Long-term goals 


Uruguay may be an amateur side, but – long-term – the Uruguayan Rugby Union has big ambitions, not least a first win over South American rivals Argentina. Head coach Pablo Lemoine has a full-time contract and exudes a business-like approach, but remains attuned to the current side’s amateur roots.

"The players have to work many hours and make many sacrifices,” says Lemoine, a former prop. “Everything they do is so that they can play for Uruguay. I'm full of pride.

"When I was a player I was very proud to play for Uruguay and now I'm proud for the players who play for Uruguay.

“When we come to England, we want people to have been happy to have paid for the ticket.

"Our attitude is that we know our group will be difficult but we will do our best. It's the only way a coach can prepare a team.”

Kooga are the official kit partner to Uruguay for the 2015 World Cup

A version of this article originally appeared in The Rugby Paper.

Rugby World Cup book to be published by The History Press

In a new venture, I've signed a deal to write a commemorative history of the upcoming Rugby World Cup for The History Press.

God (and printers) willing, it will be on shelves a fortnight after the final.

I could make a pitch about it being the ideal stocking filler for a nation beside itself with rugby fever following a 6-week festival of oval-balled skill, power and precision. But I'll leave that it to the marketing department.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Uruguay coach mystified by Rodrigo Capo Ortega absence ahead of Rugby World Cup

Uruguay coach Pablo Lemoine tells me he has had "no explanation" from star player Rodrigo Capo Ortega about his sudden withdrawal from the national side's squad.

Ortega, 34, pictured below in action for French top-tier side Castres, is Uruguay's longest-serving international and one of its few professionals.

Three weeks ago it emerged that the veteran lock had abruptly retired from international rugby, prompting speculation that his Top 14 employers might have requested him to miss the World Cup in order to avoid the risk of picking up an injury.

With his experience in top-flight professional rugby, Ortega had been viewed as a key figure in Uruguay’s campaign in the ‘Group of Death’ against England, Wales, Australia and Fiji.

But now it looks certain that Pool A’s amateur side will be without him – and head coach Lemoine, speaking to me earlier this month, said he was unclear about  the reasons for the withdrawal.

Lemoine, who became national coach in 2012 having previously won 49 caps, said of his former team-mate’s absence: "There's no explanation. Probably he has some reason, but I don't know.

"I haven't spoken to the player because he made the decision by himself.

"Really, I'm just focused on the players who want to play for our country.”

Castres have been quoted as saying that Ortega won't play for Uruguay due to "personal reasons".

Asked whether Castres might have applied some pressure to their long-serving second-rower, Lemoine said: "I'm not sure about that. I can say nothing.”

The Uruguayan Rugby Union said in a statement on July 1 that Ortega will not play for "family reasons" and in France the insinuations that his employers have leant on him have been rejected on social media.

Uruguay will play two warm-up matches in Japan before opening their World Cup campaign against Wales at the Millennium Stadium.

Kooga are the official kit partner to Uruguay for the 2015 Rugby World Cup

A version of this article first appeared in The Rugby Paper