The Argentina hero talks through his career since his early days of wowing – and joining – the crowd at Bristol
Felipe Contepomi from Bristol beginnings to Leinster evolution
That day at the Memorial Ground, Felipe Contepomi was unstoppable. In several senses.
Not only did the charismatic fly-half score all of Bristol’s points, but in the 32-24 thwarting of Northampton in 2002 he ripped off a now-iconic moment. In the act of scoring one of his two tries, he tore through the Saints defence, placed the ball down and kept on running until he was sat amongst the fans, applauding his own exceptional play.
“I couldn’t stop!” the Argentinian remembers now. “We played at Bristol Rovers, not City (the ground Bristol now play at) and there was a little bit of a slope, going down. And because it was very narrow there, in the in-goal area, I scored and then I got into the stand. It was like a family stand as there were mostly kids there.
“I couldn’t stop and kept on running up the (aisles). When I was there I just sat down and clapped with the boys there. It was just… I don’t know, it just came up to my head and it’s not something that you would normally do!”
Growing up as a fan of the Independiente soccer side in the province of Buenos Aires, celebrating does not feel alien to Contepomi. Hey, it’s okay to show your passion. As long as you do not cross “the very slim line” into mocking or disrespecting your rivals. After all, this game is meant to be fun.
Now the backs coach at Leinster, Contepomi having fun led to him becoming one of the most globally-celebrated players to come out of Argentina. In 2007, following Los Pumas‘ heroics at the Rugby World Cup in France, he was shortlisted for the men’s Player of the Year, an award that Bryan Habana would claim. He would become Leinster’s all-time record point-scorer for a while, before Johnny Sexton bedded in. After 87 Test caps and 651 points between 1998 and 2013, Contepomi would be inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame by 2017.
But that time in Bristol remains special.
“It was my first professional club and I was just starting to play for the national team as a starter, coming off the ’99 World Cup,” Contepomi says. “So moving into professionalism was a really big thing in those days for an Argentinian guy, you know.
“I was lucky I was with (Gus) Pichot and (Eduardo) Simone out there at the beginning and then (Emiliano) Bergamaschi later, and it was a very talented team. In the three years I was there I played with such good, good players. Garath Archer, David Rees, Jason Little, Daryl Gibson… I can keep on naming loads.
“So I was really lucky. And I always say that because of my age, maybe Bristol was my steepest learning curve. Going into the Premiership it was really physical. I was experiencing professionalism for the first time, so I learned a lot as a player in those days.”
Contepomi still keeps in touch with half-back partner Pichot, one of his good friends from the game. They mainly catch up about families, how they are doing rather than talking shop.
But on his old nine stepping away from the game after losing out to Bill Beaumont in the race to be World Rugby chairman, the coach adds: “Gus is very young and enthusiastic and he’s got a lot to offer to rugby. It is not something right or wrong, it’s just a vision and maybe when you’re very progressive or innovative and try to do things, sometimes you’re ahead of your time. Rugby might not be ready for all the changes he wanted to bring.
“I’m sure that Gus has a lot to offer in the coming years for rugby. He genuinely wants rugby to spread out on the whole globe, to become a popular game.”
A desire to look after the game rings true in Contepomi’s words as well. A qualified doctor, the former playmaker also serves on World Rugby’s Anti-Doping Advisory Committee, and in talking about the importance of anti-doping the backs coach talks passionately of changing the culture around keeping rugby clean.
He explains: “We always say rugby has a lot of values. And I believe that it’s not really the sport itself that has the values, it’s the people. In the World Rugby rules they don’t say, “Rule number two is: Respect!” But because of the idiosyncrasies of the game, it is a great game to transmit those values. Anti-doping is a fight to keep rugby clean and with people who dope it’s exactly the opposite of what you want to transmit through rugby.
“I don’t think we are getting the full amount of people who are cheating. We are still catching (lower-level dopers). The real dopers, we are not catching them and that is one thing that I would love to see – how we can create better, more efficient ways of doing it. And in the same way that rugby changed the perception about concussion, the other thing I’d like to see change is the perception of anti-doping.
“Ten years ago with concussion, you would never ever come off the pitch with a head knock. Now even the slightest knock, your mates will stop the game and say ‘He’s concussed.’ I think it’s a great change. So it (could be) the same with doping.
“Some players see it as a real hassle to be tested or to be taken out but it’s a great opportunity to show you’re clean and we need to approach it differently. It’s a great opportunity to make sure we all keep this sport as clean as possible.
“It should be like saying, ‘Yeah, I’ll test and show I’m clean.’ And making sure that if you see something abnormal between your mates and your peers, come up front and just say ‘I’m not sure that’s normal or that’s right’ to the right people and to make sure everyone keeps safe.
“At the same time as a team-mate will come up and say, ‘No, you’re not playing, you’re concussed’ and go and show the ref, it’s the same. If someone is doing something wrong, even if it’s your mate, you should be able to go to the S&C coach or to the coach, whoever, and say you are not sure they are doing something right.”
Looking at the purely midical side, Contepomi later adds that he finds it incredible anyone would dope without knowing the real-life consequences on their body. But as a matter of helping athletes and the sport as a whole, he would like the mindset to change.
When asked why he thinks we are not catching the ‘real dopers’ he quickly responds: “Well, are you catching the drug dealers?” He then adds that the window of opportunity to catch dopers in a test is very small. Which is why he sees the cultural aspect of this as vital.
In the same way that playing concussed, even in the biggest games of one’s career, is seen as unacceptable now – and he praises Bongi Mbonambi and the Springboks for taking the hooker off after a concussion in last year’s World Cup final – he wants athletes and organisations to call out any adverse behaviours.
Contepomi is fortunate, he says, that he has enjoyed a life where he can explore his passions of rugby and medicine. He doesn’t like to say he’s lucky, he adds, because there was hard work to get to where he is. But to have varied perspectives from different walks of life can be helpful.
It shows in the way he talks about the potential dismantling of the Jaguares Super Rugby squad. He will not comment on specifics as so much uncertainty still rings the southern hemisphere competition, but as more reports come out of Argentinian stars signing for sides outside of South America, he talks of new opportunities. Not only for players but to assess where the global game is.
If we are taking stock, then, how has he evolved as a coach since guiding the Jaguares and then rejoining Leinster in 2018?
“I’d like to think that I’ve improved a lot,” Contepomi replies. “I’ve always been grateful to them to giving me the opportunity to come back to Leinster. With my philosophy in terms of rugby, it’s easier for me in Leinster because it’s the philosophy I believe in and the way I love rugby to be played.
“Having said that, I’ve been very lucky having coaches like Leo (Cullen) as a head coach, Stuart Lancaster as a senior coach and now Robin McBryde as forwards coach. I’ve been surrounded by a lot of very good and knowledgeable coaches, and for me that’s easier to learn from. And also there’s a great bunch of players!
“For the last two years here, especially besides Stuart, I’ve seen how important the defensive systems are and how understanding and clarity on what you want to do – in attack, but more so in defence – is the best way to transmit that. It sounds obvious but sometimes you might not sit down and (seek) clarity and ask all the time ‘What if? What if?'”
Leadership and learning how best to empower players has been a strong focus for Contepomi. He did a diploma at UCD on leadership and management. But if we look at purely on-pitch evolutions, it would be good to know where he thinks innovations can come in.
“I would always say in attack, you have to be creative. Why? Because defences become better and better and refuse to stay static. So you need to be creative, but you don’t have to change for the sake of changing or change everything, every year. You just have to make small changes that can bring differences. Sometimes simplicity is the key.
“If you have defences coming hard, sometimes instead of playing behind the back when now everyone is starting to read your play, you can start playing ‘circle balls’ (when a support player runs an arc from an inside position to take a pass on the outside shoulder) for example. They used to be played a few years ago but it comes and goes and maybe it’s not that you have to be innovative in bringing something completely different in. Or you can look at if you want to go through the defence and not around them now, for example.
“With a circle, say you have two forwards and you throw it to the second forward, it’s not about just giving the ball out the back. You will attack the same space, but they won’t see you coming because you’re coming late. You don’t have to change the whole of how you attack.”
When the Guinness Pro14 and European Champions Cup get back underway, knock-out specialists Leinster will bare their ambitions again. Amidst the action though, using subtle changes, renewing attitudes and creating fun could prove a difference-maker. That would be worth applauding.
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