Alan Quinlan: Felipe Contepomi the perfect fit as young Leinster fly-halves learn on their feet
DESPITE the much-lauded depth at Leinster, when Ross Byrne went down injured in the first half of last week’s season-opening win against Cardiff, the bottom of the talent pool was thrust into view.
Byrne’s importance to Leinster was never more apparent than last Friday night. And the trigger for such a thought was not the man-of-the-match performance he delivered, but the realisation, as he was sprawled out on the ground receiving treatment, that Leinster so desperately need him to stay fit at the moment.
Leo Cullen is capable of papering over the cracks in other areas of the field if an injury curse strikes, for example shuffling a flanker into No 8 or a full-back to wing, but No 10 is such a specialised position and with Johnny Sexton still working his way back to full fitness after a draining season of unparalleled success, and Ciaran Frawley injured, Leinster are looking dangerously light at fly-half.
Ross’s younger brother Harry is another emerging option but he is yet to play a senior game.
Noel Reid can offer makeshift out-half cover, but the harsh reality of the departure of Joey Carbery and retirement of ‘Mr Fixit’ Isa Nacewa is really hitting home.
Assuming he does stay fit for the start of this season, however, Byrne now has another great opportunity to impress and grow as a footballer, and under the watchful eye of one Felipe Contepomi, who I expect to be a great addition to the Leinster set-up.
Early in his professional career, Sexton admitted he owed Contepomi a lot for helping him to develop as a player, to back himself, play to his strengths and ultimately deliver as Leinster’s first-choice No 10.
The province’s crop of young fly-halves – Ross Byrne (23), Frawley (20) and Harry Byrne (19) – will only benefit from having the Argentinian in their ear and while the 41-year-old’s coaching career may still be in its infancy, I think the recruitment of him as backs coach is an astute move.
“I get asked about him (Contepomi) a lot... and because I know it’ll come up again, I say to myself, ‘I must spend some time thinking about just how much his influence has had in concrete terms’,” a 22-year-old Sexton said in April 2008 when trying to explain the impact playing alongside Contepomi had had on him.
“I’d still struggle to answer. I can tell you he’s helped me so much, that he talks to me before and during matches and is hugely supportive.
“He gives his opinion which I value hugely and he’s brilliant to play with but at the same time he encourages you to develop, take responsibility,” Sexton continued.
Words like that make it sound like Contepomi was always destined for a coaching role in the game.
As well as being a guiding hand to the young playmakers, and Sexton who is just eight years his junior, Felipe will bring fresh ideas, insightful game intelligence and his fiery Latin temperament to Cullen’s backroom team.
Despite plenty of opinions to the contrary, probably due to our respective issues with red mist, I never had any spiky run-ins with Felipe on the field, although I can’t say the same for ROG, Denis Leamy or Donncha O’Callaghan!
Felipe was a cult hero at Leinster when their rivalry with us was certainly not wanting for intensity, both sides trying to wobble the other as they attempted to climb the rungs of the European ladder.
Match previews were regularly hung on his duels with ROG and that often made Felipe the prime target of ire from our fans.
However, the reality was, had he been a provincial team-mate rather than a rival, he would have been adored by the Munster faithful. He was brave, he hit hard and he never took a backward step.
Felipe was an unorthodox footballer who could produce moments of magic, he was a natural leader and I would have loved to have played alongside him.
We took on Leinster in the Celtic League at Irish Independent Park in October 2005 and while Felipe struggled off the tee, and we prevailed comfortably (33-9) in the end, he certainly made his mark on me.
With the tie still in the melting pot I took a pass out wide for what looked set to be the game’s opening try. Felipe was closing in on me fast but I was confident that my 10-15kg buffer would ride a tackle from him. How wrong I was.
I stepped off my right foot to initiate the contact and smack, he bundled me into touch. Boy, did he hit me hard.
We scored five tries to Leinster’s none that day, and Contepomi sparked some post-match controversy when he claimed some Munster players “lacked respect”, alleging a few of his opponents were doing their damnedest to put him off while he was taking an ultimately unsuccessful penalty off the tee late in the first half.
He didn’t name names but yours truly was inevitably thrown into the mix by plenty of commentators, but I had nothing to do with it.
Felipe has plenty of respect for Munster, he has reiterated as much in recent weeks, but on that particular afternoon he was really hurting.
He had missed a couple of kicks and as Leinster skipper it was a difficult defeat to digest for a such a steely competitor.
Felipe has never been afraid to speak his mind either, and I’m sure he will be a very vocal presence in the Leinster backroom.
If he thinks someone is in the wrong he is not afraid to call them out on it either, as I found out a few years ago.
In 2012, I wrote an article about Argentina ahead of a Test match with Ireland, and in it I referred to bad blood between the sides, highlighting a couple of eye-gouging offences by Pumas during my playing days.
We had some testy games against them – a 2004 clash in Lansdowne Road in particular – and the incidents emanated from a burgeoning rivalry between two quality sides. I detailed some of the illegal behaviour but was respectful of them as rugby players.
It then transpired, unbeknown to me, that someone from Leinster contacted Felipe and told him that I had labelled Argentinians as dirty players, although the messenger failed to mention that the majority of the article had been complimentary of them as an emerging superpower in world rugby.
Ahead of the Test match I bumped into Felipe in the Aviva tunnel and before I had the opportunity to even say hello he called me out on the article and he refused a request to do an interview with me for RTÉ’s ‘Against the Head’.
After realising he hadn’t actually read the article, I explained how the piece was not an attack on Argentinian rugby but an assessment of how it had grown from inconsistent days that were littered with flashes of ill-discipline to a time where they needed to be feared for all the right reasons.
Felipe accepted that wires had been crossed and it wasn’t long before he was shaking my hand, laughing about the absurdity of the entire situation, and agreeing to do the interview with me for RTÉ.
He will bring a brashness and instil great belief in Leinster’s young backs and while his off-the-cuff magic is difficult to coach, I’m sure he will have plenty of fresh ideas for what is already a supremely talented attack.
Irish rugby will be even stronger for having a man like Felipe involved again and I’m already looking forward to our next encounter.