Captain, totem, powerhouse – there will be no missing the Pumas flanker in Japan
Get to know Argentina’s Pablo Matera
IT WAS a barnstorming performance before they even reached the field. Standing in the tunnel, non-playing members of the Jaguares squad were chanting and clapping, squeezing in tight so that the starting team had to battle through a party to head onto the pitch for their Super Rugby semi-final against the Brumbies.
Unsurprisingly, back-row boss Pablo Matera was bouncing, bringing the most energy to his escape. During the game he was just as vigorous. The Jaguares crushed the Aussie side 39-7.
In the Super Rugby final the Argentinian outfit succumbed to the Crusaders. However, Matera was again to the fore and took the Man of the Match gong.
His rise has been jet-fuelled but it all could have been so different.
“To be honest, my family had nothing to do with rugby,” Matera tells Rugby World of his start in the game. “Here the main sport is football so any young kid will start playing that. But after the 2007 World Cup, rugby started growing a lot in Argentina. Like many kids, I was really enthusiastic about learning the game, so I went to Alumni, my home club, and started developing there.
“After 2007 it was something really new. Nobody knew we could go that far. As a nation we have been very amateur, but that year we had so many players who were professional in Europe. That was a great team and they knew every player in France as so many played there. I think that’s why we were able to beat them twice at that World Cup and finish third.
“It was maybe the biggest thing in Argentinian rugby history.”
Matera began running amok on the fields of Alumni as he turned 15, but the spark plug would soon be marked for something special. By his own admission he did not think of the Pumas at first, only of playing with his mates. But at 17 he was taken to an U20s camp.
Missing out on that Junior World Championship spurred him on. The next year he was taken to South Africa with the rep side, playing the Boks in a semi-final at a packed Newlands. Then and there he decided he wanted to make a senior World Cup.
He played with the U20s the next year too, in France. But after that trip he was whisked off play for the senior Pumas in all six Rugby Championship ties.
“It was all really fast,” Matera, 26, says, in an ample understatement.
The changes didn’t stop there. “Marcos Ayerza was playing for Leicester Tigers and he was the one who told me their coach was interested in me. That’s when I realised I could go to Europe.
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“I didn’t think about it, I just said ‘yes’. So two days later, after the Rugby Championship, I was moving to England. I was very young, didn’t think much, but I don’t regret it because I learnt a lot there and improved my game.”
Matera admits to frustrations. He was on a treadmill that had been spinning for some time, going from junior caps to his senior debut for Alumni, making an Argentina XV, playing in a Rugby Championship and then landing in Leicester.
He found the language difficult so new systems were tough, the weather was alien to him, he had more admin to deal with than any young man living at home with mum and three sisters ever has to do and, he laughs, he couldn’t find any meat quite as good as he was used to in Argentina.
He wanted to quit the Tigers due to a lack of games, but his mum convinced him to see out his contract. He was then one of the few pros to join the Jaguares in their early days, when many incomers were amateurs. Now he appreciates lessons from Europe.
His franchise have improved yearly, as has he. People all over the globe know his name. And they know the passion he brings (it comes as no surprise that when he was asked to captain the Pumas last year – taking over from the legendary Agustín Creevy – his first call was to his mum).
Matera has played in one World Cup, but with this one more eyes will be on him. He says: “People in Argentina are really excited because the Jaguares had a great season. People think that their players are able to beat any team.
“We’re concerned that Jaguares rugby and international rugby are a different thing and that having a great season with the club will not mean a great year with the Pumas. We need to improve a lot in order to continue winning games.
“And we are in the most difficult pool (with England and France). Losing against France in the first game will make it really difficult to go through to the quarter-finals.
“But it being in Japan will make no difference to us. Many of us have already played there. We will prepare for the tournament in Australia, so we will be fine with the difference in time zones.”
Things can feel so manageable when you’ve spent your career trajectory riding on a rocket.
This article originally appeared in the October issue of Rugby World magazine.
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