Schooled by Irish Christian Brothers before making a life for himself in Dublin, tomorrow’s fixture means more for the ex-Puma fly-half who is now coaching at Leinster
Few fixtures on the rugby calendar can mean more to anyone than Ireland v Argentina to Felipe Contepomi.
From the outside, his relationship with his current home would appear to be complex. As a player he was at once the darling of Leinster and the bête noire of the Irish team against whom he won one in 10 of his 87 Argentina caps during a period when the rivalry between the two teams boiled over.
At times, his on-field spats suggested it was a deeply personal enmity and yet he would pitch up in Dublin a few weeks later and be cheered from the rafters by the fans in blue.
Now, he says it’s a little bit simpler.
As a coach with Leinster, he lives in Dublin with his wife Sophia and their young son Juan Ignacio and can go to today’s match free from the pressures of old.
The way he tells it, he’s almost a neutral – even if that’s hard to believe.
“I always said Ireland is my adopted country, Ireland has always been very good to me,” he says. “As a rugby player and now as a coach.
“It’s easier now that you are not a player, for me it’s a win-win situation. I just want to see a good rugby game, the guys I train and coach performing well.
“If Argentina wins I’ll be happy because they’ll make history, but it’s not something really that . . . it’s a win-win.”
Contepomi played in England with Bristol and in France with RC Toulon and Stade Francais, but it was in Dublin where he found that sense of belonging that has endured.
“We are always looking to fit somewhere,” he says. “Rugby-wise, Leinster was the perfect fit for me because the Leinster way of playing rugby, the culture, fits with my philosophy of playing rugby.
“So, it’s easy for me to fit in Leinster.
“I love the Irish people, the Irish culture and more so the Leinster way of playing rugby.
“I suppose it’s the same when you are coaching a team that plays or tries to play your philosophy of rugby.
“In other places you need to adapt and that’s fine, you learn cultures and adapt your game of rugby. That’s part of showing if you’re good or not as a player or a coach, understanding and adapting to the situation and wherever the club you’re in.
“Leinster definitely fit and I fit with Leinster’s way, too.”
Although Argentina is a long way from the rest of the rugby world, the young Contepomi made a connection with Ireland early on.
His natural flair and willingness to take chances was forged while playing for Club Newman in Buenos Aires and gelled nicely with what he found when he moved to Ireland.
“It definitely comes from the club I grew up in and played with since I was eight years old, the Newman club,” he says of his rugby philosophy.
“It’s very similar to Leinster’s philosophy of rugby, you know? A dynamic, quick, fast type of rugby. I got it from where I started, from grassroots. It doesn’t mean that my philosophy is the right one, more so I would say it’s more how I most like rugby to be played.
“The Pumas, when I was playing, we were nowhere near the way we played in Leinster. I had to adapt. The same in Bristol, Toulon, in Stade. It’s part of your adaptation.
“Leinster is just the perfect fit for how I played rugby.
“I went to a Christian Brothers School so maybe my love for Ireland and the Irish people comes from that.
“It’s not that I didn’t know where Ireland was or anything about Ireland’s culture.
“Growing up, we always loved the Six Nations. In Argentina, the Six Nations is highly rated in terms of the tradition, the tournament and people love to watch it and I always had Ireland as my favourite country.
“That was probably because I went to an Irish school, I had Irish Christian Brothers teaching me all the way through, now there are not that many but when I was starting we had lots.
“We knew part of the Irish history.”
Contepomi now works alongside one of the players with whom he did battle on a regular basis.
The images of Denis Leamy and the out-half grappling with each other as players are a reminder of the battle that generation of Pumas went through to establish themselves at rugby’s top table.
The victory over Ireland at the 1999 World Cup was key to that process, while Alan Quinlan’s try in Adelaide scored some revenge four years later.
The 2007 match at the Parc des Princes went the way of the South Americans, a win that cemented their place as a force in the world game. For that team, everything was a battle.
“That’s life, you fight for everything,” he says. “If you’re lucky that you’re born in certain places things might come a bit easier, but you still have to fight.
“In life, you might have to fight a bit harder. You might not be as rewarded as you’d like to be, but I think that’s life.
“The pictures with Denis and so on, it shows how when Ireland and Argentina played, when Leinster and Munster played it was infused with passion and pride for the jersey, it will be a crunchy game.
“Ultimately, that’s what you want when you’re part of a team, people really having pride. Defending their jersey.
“I was lucky, I was in a Leinster team that was like that and Irish culture is like that, Munster is very much like that.
“It didn’t differ playing in Ireland v Argentina games or Leinster v Munster, they were similar in that sense I think.”
Contepomi retired after 87 caps in 2013, by which time the Pumas were on the Rugby Championship roster.
And yet he sees himself as a cog in the wheel of that process, rather than a driving force.
“You can feel pride, but I was lucky in terms of the teams I was able to play in. Not only at club level with the players I played with at Leinster, Toulon, Bristol and Stade Francais, but also at the national team. I played with some of the best Argentinean players in history.
“For me, I’m very grateful for that.
“I don’t know if I’d call it pride, I feel we were part of the big, long history of Argentinean rugby and that’s what we had to do in that moment. We’re only a small part of it, we achieved what we achieved because someone beforehand did what they had to do in tough circumstances.
“Maybe they didn’t have the opportunities, they weren’t built to succeed. I was lucky in how it all turned out and the timing of when I got to play for my national team, it was a great team those years.”
Before joining Leinster, Contepomi worked with the Jaguares team who were part of Super Rugby before that competition was reshaped during the pandemic.
Now, the current team is “trying to find a place” in the world game. They haven’t played a home game since before the World Cup in 2019 and, although they beat New Zealand last year, they’ve struggled at times.
“Luckily, we still have almost every Argentinean rugby player wanting to play for Argentina and enjoying it,” he says, having spent some time at the team’s training in UCD this week.
“Some have been given the chance to play for Italy, but they picked Argentina because it’s a very proud thing for us, same as Ireland.
“We feel deep in our roots where we come from.”
In July, he made it home for the first time since Covid-19 struck; seeing his daughters Manuela and Catalina and the rest of his family was a special experience after a “very tough” 18 months of travel restrictions. Home never felt so far away.
“It’s not the same to see my family through a camera, it’s not the same as having a coffee with my dad,” he says.
Tomorrow, Argentina will come to him. He’ll take his seat at the Aviva Stadium and watch the old battleground from afar.
“It will be a very physical game, a good game,” he says.
Plus ça change.