Volume 6, Number 1

March 2008

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ĎRugby gives you values: they arenít written but they are for lifeí
Interview with Felipe Contepomi
By Edmundo Murray 


Felipe Contepomi during British & Irish Lions vs Argentina, Cardiff, May 2005
 (Prensa Uniůn Argentina de Rugby)

Talking to Felipe Contepomi evokes exciting moments in our sporting lives, whether as players or supporters. It is also a way to learn, in a peculiar way, about playing professional rugby with the enthusiasm of an amateur.

Born in Buenos Aires, Contepomi went to study at Cardenal Newman School, run by the Irish Christian Brothers, in the outskirts of the city. He started playing rugby at the school, and was quickly picked for the junior selections in Buenos Aires and later at the national level. He has played more than fifty games with The Pumas. His twin brother Manuel is also a player in the national team. 

A star of the Leinster Rugby team in Ireland, Felipe is also a medical doctor, having graduated from the Royal College of Surgeons. He lives in Dublin with his wife Paula and their daughter Catalina. 

Edmundo Murray (EM): What influence has your Irish school education had on your life and on your rugby-playing?

Felipe Contepomi (FP): [Cardenal] Newman was and still is important in my life. It was my second home, and had a great effect on my educational and life values, and of course on my rugby-playing. Today when you speak of my career, the first milestone is always el Newman. It is an Irish school with high standards, and I was conscious of the Irish character of the school from the beginning, for instance during the Irish tournaments. Indeed, having studied at Newman school was important in later decisions that I made, like when I was offered the chance to play for Leinster.

EM: You studied to be a medical doctor, and were awarded MB, BCh and BAO degrees by the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. How difficult do you find studying and playing professional rugby in Ireland? 

FP: Some consider that being a good player and a good student is not possible. And perhaps medicine is not the most common of university studies for a rugby player. But there are many professional players who are studying. Of course sometimes it is difficult to do both things together, but I donít think it is a sacrifice. I didnít study just for the sake of it. If you want to be a medical doctor you need to make some concessions, but you can also make some good choices to link both activities. I selected orthopaedics as my speciality. 

EM: If rugby becomes professional in Argentina, do you think it would lead to the demise of vibrant club-level rugby, as is claimed to have happened in Ireland and Wales?

FP: In my view, professional rugby must be built on the foundations of the amateur activity and its values. Itís not just money that counts, as so many people think in Argentina. As I learnt at Newman School, education and values are key elements of rugby, whether professional or amateur. In Argentina we have the advantage of being late entrants to professional rugby. We can learn from others to avoid mistakes. Our greatest fault is to think that we need to reinvent the wheel. However, we need to keep the amateur infrastructure in order to develop professional rugby. 

EM: Even if the adjective is a little strong, do you consider yourself a nationalist?

FP: Yes, it is strong and ambiguous too. In a way, I canít uproot myself from my origins. One has to be aware of the place one comes from. On the other hand, I am very open to changes Ö to the future. I do believe in the common good for anyone, independently of the society in which you are born or educated. In rugby, this means that I must play at 100 percent of my strength and passion, whether for Bristol, Leinster or The Pumas. And yet, your countryís jersey is so powerful! Playing rugby means that you must respect others, and your team-mates. Compared to other sports, rugby gives you values, not just entertainment. At least in Argentina, from an early age you are linked to a club, a group of friends, a society. If there are good relationships amongst the group, the results will be seen in the field. We have to consider that rugby has a long history of amateurism. Football started to be professional in the 1930s, while rugby didnít eliminate restrictions on professionalism until the 1990s. We had a century of amateur values in our activity before becoming professionals.

Singing the national anthem before Argentina vs. France,
7 September 2007 (third from left Manuel Contepomi; fourth from left Felipe Contepomi)

(Felipe Contepomi)

EM: Why was the image of The Pumas singing the Argentine national anthem the one that you wished to give to the public?

FP: We sang spontaneously what we felt at the time. It was our mood. We always sing out loud and intensely. Some journalists made a big deal of it, but we liked it that way. And the musical version that they played helped us to sing in that way. 

EM: Rugby has adapted to diverse cultures in different places. While in southern France, for instance, it has a strong rural character, in Argentina is more urban and has been traditionally upper-class. 

FP: Yes, it is true that before rugby was more-or-less an elite entertainment. But since 1999 there has been a complete change in the situation, and the activity has grown enormously. Now it is more popular, and more people from diverse social origins are attracted to rugby. 

EM: During the 2007 World Cup you publicly criticised the embattled Irish coach Eddie OíSullivan. Was this motivated by a personal enmity against the coach?

FP: I did not criticise Eddie OíSullivan. At that time, people in Ireland were certain that they would reach the semi-finals, and they did not consider otherwise. Professional coaches are hired to build successful teams. If they donít, they are fired the day after losing the match, and that is what I said about Eddie OíSullivan. This doesnít happen only with the Irish coaches. Take a look at the Australians, the French. Professionalism requires getting results. Thatís all I said. However, I guess I did not like OíSullivanís comments after his team lost to the Pumas. It is always easier to blame others instead of recognising what you yourself have done wrong.

EM: Do you think that night in Lens in 1999 (when Ireland lost the chance for a place for the world cup semi-final in Dublin) has created a long legacy of bitterness and begrudgery, particularly among the Irish coaching staff and management, towards Argentina, or do the roots of the enmity run deeper than that?

FP: What happened is that the Pumas shocked Ireland. The Irish players and coaches couldn't believe that they were losing to Argentina. When we checked in at the hotel that evening we saw the luggage left by some of the Irish players who couldn't conceive of the idea that they would have to check out, because they were certain that the boys in green would secure the semi-finals. There isn't such an enmity towards Argentina; I actually experienced the opposite from players, management and supporters. You should see how well they consider us when we win over Ireland. They really understand fair play, and you can see their good feelings especially when they aren't so lucky.

British & Irish Lions vs Argentina, Cardiff, May 2005
 (Prensa Uniůn Argentina de Rugby)

EM: That's something you definitively don't see among the French supporters.

FP: (laughs) Not at all. 

EM: Do you find a condescending attitude among the IRB and established home unions towards Argentina?

FP: No. I think that the IRB wants to help Argentina to establish an international rugby infrastructure. But there are two important factors we need to take into account. Today's rugby is professional and consequently, it is a business. If Argentina does not present a potential business for the international community it will be very hard to break in.

EM: Jorge Bķsico, the famous rugby journalist, wrote a piece during the rugby world cup on the Pumas being a metaphor for the country that Argentines would like their country to be: orderly, non-corrupt and respectful. He wrote that football represented their country as it actually is: corrupt, disorderly and characterised by random violence and lack of respect. Would you agree with these sentiments?

FP: I would challenge those comparisons between football and rugby. Most of the Argentine football players give their best in the field. They travel frequently and to remote locations, keeping to crazy schedules, and they have to play a few hours after landing. Then they try to deliver an excellent game. Some people in Argentina say that football players 'earn millions', and in some cases this may be true. But the physical and psychological effort must be contributed either way. Every sporting activity has its own idiosyncrasy, and we have to respect that. 

EM: How did you adjust to life in Ireland? Did you have to adapt to professional rugby?

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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2008 

Online published: 12 March 2008
Edited: 07 May 2009

Murray, Edmundo, '"Rugby gives you values: they arenít written but they are for life": Interview with Felipe Contepomi'
in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 6:1 (March 2008), pp. 75-78. Available online  (www.irlandeses.org/imsla0803.htm), accessed .

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