Wednesday 18 September 2019

For Felipe Contepomi, life is what happens when you're busy making other plans

Leinster fans' favourite could see himself returning to the province in coaching role

Felipe Contepomi cried when he was inducted into World Rugby Hall of Fame. Photo: Sportsfile
Felipe Contepomi cried when he was inducted into World Rugby Hall of Fame. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Life can't be storyboarded like a movie; unless it's 'Casablanca' when a pile of great people made it up as they went along.

Which is probably why it's a classic.

There was a time when Felipe Contepomi's life once spun around the dreams of becoming a doctor in Buenos Aires rather than boomeranging penalty kicks on a wet and windy dog track in the west of Ireland.

Which is probably why he became one of the best rugby players the world has ever seen.

"Life happens," says Contepomi, the gilded genius who lit up hearts from Buenos Aires to Ballsbridge and beyond in a glittering career.

"You can't programme it from the beginning to the end. You need to live it from day to day. You need to enjoy it. And when you can, then you do what you really love.

"I had the opportunity to become a professional player and I decided to go for it. And I loved it. I never planned it. I was never going to be able to plan my life from being a five-year-old until my death."

A design for life? We'll take it.

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Earlier this month, his old friend Gus Pichot, one-time Puma scrum-half, his predecessor as national captain and now World Rugby blazer, was on hand to install Contepomi in World Rugby's Hall of Fame located, aptly enough, in the English town of Rugby.

Reluctantly, the 40-year-old admits he cried. Ten of his closest childhood friends were there. So too Sofia, his wife, and Carlos, his father.

Touching

"I didn't expect something like that. It was really simple but also deeply emotional, a lovely ceremony.

"Gus said some words. He is a close friend of mine. They were very touching. I'm a very sensible man so probably I have cried before for rugby!

"But this wasn't because of rugby. He was talking about my life situation and the emotional moments were because of my family and friends. He was talking about me as a person rather than a rugby player."

Because he was a person first, a rugby player second. Or, rather, third.

As a child, he wanted to follow his father into medicine.

"Rugby wasn't a professional sport in my country so I never saw that as a career. My dream was always to become a doctor."

That he could live that dream and then fulfil another sums up one for whom existence has never been about straight lines.

In 1999, Irish rugby was just as amateur as the Argentineans were; the corrosive World Cup defeat in Lens - Felipe and twin brother Manuel were in that squad - would be a watershed for the game here, ushering in professionalism fit for 21st century purpose.

Contepomi would be a poster boy for the revolution.

It was probably no surprise that this pupil from a Cardinal Newman school would ultimately end up establishing his reputation in Dublin.

As much as the history between Ireland and Argentina reeks of discord, envy and rancour, the good doctor views the relationship through a different prism. He sees only similarities, not difference.

"They are like that because we are very similar in the way we feel rugby. Argentina and Ireland are two passionate nations and they will literally fight for their lives.

"Both countries are very proud of that and when two teams like that play each other, sometimes you will have games that are passionate and confrontational. Other countries may not have the same friction because they don't share that passion.

"That's why playing in Ireland appealed to me so much. Even watching Leinster and Munster now. You never take anything for granted even if they aren't playing well, they fight to the end. That's why I enjoyed rugby the most in Ireland."

His eyes dance down the phone line from another hemisphere as halcyon battles with Quinlan and O'Gara and O'Callaghan are recalled, for club and country.

Where others denoted hatred, he only delineated esteem.

"There was always respect afterwards no matter what was said or done! I have huge respect for Munster and everything they have done.

"The way you play with that passion is the best way of showing respect to your opponent. Passionate before a game but win or lose, respect after. I love the way Irish people live rugby. It's the same way I live rugby."

Argentina's hat-trick of World Cup wins against Ireland were deeply embarrassing; a third-world rugby nation, albeit with first-class players, defeating a first-world country with vastly superior resources.

The country has only begun to embrace professionalism - Contepomi assisted the Jaguares in their debut Super Rugby season two years ago and now helps the country's second team, while the Pumas have been in the Rugby Championship for six years.

The progress is painfully slow but the rewards may be bountiful in time to come.

"The pace is quick but we need to adapt. What we haven't done in 20 years we just simply cannot transform in just two years. So there are difficulties too.

"For Irish people, professional rugby is instilled in your culture every weekend from an early age. For us, it is all new.

"Not only the players, the coaches and the alickadoos, even the public. We are all learning to live professionalism the way it has been lived around the world in 20 years.

"We have to be patient, trust and keep working. Unfortunately, it will take time. We can definitely be competitive at the World Cup.

"We have been competitive in many before without professionalism, in just six weeks. Now we are learning how to cope the whole year around and that is proving difficult for some of the players.

"But we are constantly learning. I'm confident we can arrive with a good team and they can be competitive.

"Those World Cup games are history. The 80 minutes on Saturday is all that counts. Argentina have never beaten Ireland in Dublin and that is a massive, massive challenge. Our players will know that."

Contepomi returned home to continue his medical career with Carlos but has now been bitten by the coaching bug.

"I came here to study some more but I got frustrated with the medical system in Argentina. Then this opportunity came and my philosophy is to go for it if it comes up.

Legacy

"I never plan for how long this is going to be. I'm just lucky to have the opportunity and I don't worry about where it might take me.

"It's not about leaving a legacy. I'm getting a lot of out it, learning from young players and also learning to be a coach.

"If I could help someone to get better, that would be great. I don't focus on legacy, if you do things right and try to do your best, it should follow that you leave something behind.

"I try to be patient. Sometimes it is difficult. But it is also learning that when you are a player, you have some things in your control because you are doing them.

"Now, some things are out of your control so you have to believe in your players. Learning how to do that is so rewarding."

He won't plan life but smiles when you project one plan.

That which casts him in one coaching box at the RDS and Ronan O'Gara in another, with Munster.

"From what I know and hear from friends, Ronan is developing really well as a coach so hopefully some day he will be coaching Munster.

"And, who knows I could be coaching Leinster!"

Sounds like a Hollywood ending. He won't script it though. Just let life happen. It's worked out well enough for him so far.

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