Thursday 23 November 2017

Return of 'pantomime villain' Contepomi to Thomond Park adds extra spice to Toulon clash

Felipe Contepomi will face his old Munster foes tomorrow
Felipe Contepomi will face his old Munster foes tomorrow

IF we can assume that Toulon director of rugby Philippe Saint-Andre does not partake in a verbal practice the English refer to as "silly buggers," then Felipe Contepomi will be running out at Thomond Park tomorrow afternoon.

After their tense 19-14 victory over the Ospreys at the Stade Felix Mayol last weekend, Saint Andre said the following: "I will change some players and rest a few. I have guys like Felipe Contepomi who will start next week."

Given Munster's victory imperative following last weekend's loss to London Irish and the inclination to bill this as a clash between home-grown warriors and expensively acquired mercenaries, it was not as though tomorrow's showdown needed extra spice -- but Contepomi certainly provides it.

This is a player who, over the course of a series of Leinster-Munster and Argentina-Ireland battles, has developed relationships with some of tomorrow's opponents that could be described as tempestuous, to say the least.

During his time with Leinster, Contepomi was recognised as a gifted playmaker and the perfect foil for a back line bursting with speed and subtlety. It was only natural that he was the primary target for opponents and a natural exuberance and on-field arrogance merely increased the determination to get after him.

There was the Magners League clash at the RDS on New Year's Eve 2005, when Contepomi scored two tries and 25 points in total during Leinster's 35-23 victory over their southern rivals. That one stung Munster, particularly as he celebrated one of his touchdowns by cupping his hands behind his ears in a 'I can't hear you' taunt to the visiting supporters.

By the time the sides clashed again four months later in the Heineken Cup semi-final at Lansdowne Road, Contepomi was being described as "the best player in the northern hemisphere" after orchestrating some wonderful, flowing victories away to Bath and Toulouse on the province's way to the last four.

To stop Leinster, Munster knew they had to get at Contepomi and that day at Lansdowne he crumbled spectacularly in the face of the southerners' feral ferocity -- the critical factor in Munster's comprehensive victory. In the meetings that followed, it became abundantly clear that there was no love lost between Contepomi and Munster, which spilled over into the World Cup, when Argentina knocked a woefully underperforming Ireland out of the competition in Paris.


As well as taunting his opponents on the pitch, the Argentinian used the post-match press conference to get stuck into the three Munster players on the Irish team whom he believed to be his chief tormentors over the years -- Ronan O'Gara, Denis Leamy and Donncha O'Callaghan.

"It is always the same three people," said Contepomi. "They came to talk to me. I try not to get involved. If they talk, I won't stay shut up, obviously. Unnecessary things that stay inside the pitch. They know why they do it. I don't know."

Despite his triumphalism that day, Contepomi never really felt he had burnt the Munster monkey off his back until he got the opportunity of a Heineken Cup semi-final rematch in 2009.

He made his intentions clear in the first minute of that game when he ran into, and over, O'Gara, but while Leinster went on to exact comprehensive

revenge for three years previously, injury meant Contepomi could not take a full part.

If he does take to the Thomond Park pitch tomorrow, he will be the designated pantomime villain for a group of supporters, who still believe he can be successfully got at.

All this acrimony with Munster and their various constituent parts does not reflect a warm and engaging off-field personality that made the qualified doctor popular with team-mates, supporters and media during his Leinster years. And, even at 33, the 68-times capped Puma remains a hell of a footballer.

Jonny Wilkinson -- and the circus that follows him around -- have inevitably been garnering most of the headlines in Toulon, but Contepomi has been proving an effective foil alongside England's World Cup hero in midfield.

Indeed, despite Toulon's strong start to the season (they lie third in the Top 14 table, a point behind leaders Racing Metro), locals would welcome Contepomi starting at 10 as the style of rugby with Wilkinson in the driving seat has been short on traditional Gallic flair (Ospreys director of coaching Scott Johnson said he was "almost falling asleep" watching Toulon last weekend).

Contepomi at 10 is a different matter entirely. There has always been a touch of the maverick about him and although growing up in an era when Puma out-half Hugo Porta was recognised as one of the finest in world rugby, it was another Argentinian No 10 that excited Contepomi's admiration.

"I do not believe much in idolatry because sportsmen are only human, but Maradona was a genius," said Contepomi. "Wherever Argentinians travel in the world, the first person they talk to you about is Maradona.

"You may not always agree with what he does, but it is important to remember his background, where he came from and what he became. In the 1990 World Cup final against West Germany, he played on one foot and he was still by far the best player on the field."

Bar one famous incident at the Mexico World Cup in 1986, hand-eye co-ordination was not a priority for Argentina's little genius, but it defines Contepomi's code of football and his vision of how the game should be played.

Sitting deep in the pocket and kicking for position is not his style and, during his Leinster days, he would mischievously make a point of referring to O'Gara as a regimented, kicking out-half, painting himself as a spontaneous innovator by comparison.

"It's not about how the No 10 plays, O'Gara or Contepomi," he said. "It's about different styles for different teams. If we swapped places, O'Gara would have to adapt to a running style and I would have to do the same with a kicking game.

"Whether you can get used to that or not is a different matter. I think perhaps it's true, yes, one type of rugby suits him and another suits me. That's all there is to it."

The stereotype of machine versus magician does not do justice to either O'Gara's attacking instincts or Contepomi's ability to control a game, but it helps to set up an intriguing contest if the two go head-to-head in Limerick tomorrow afternoon. And that's before you bring Leamy and O'Callaghan -- not to mention Carl Hayman, Joe Van Niekerk and a host of Toulon heavyweights -- into the equation.

The certainty is that, if Contepomi gets the opportunity to face his old adversaries once more, it should produce viewing that would keep even Scott Johnson awake.

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport