The Condores have made history by qualifying for their first-ever World Cup, but how did they get to this point? Frankie Deges reports

The rise of rugby in Chile

A blessing in disguise. That’s what losing the final of the Superliga Americana de Rugby (SLAR), South America’s six-team professional league, has proved to be for Chilean rugby.

The professional team of Selknam helped to fine-tune things ahead of their series against the USA, which Chile won to qualify for the Rugby World Cup for the first time ever.

SLAR proved to be a great springboard for the the two-legged Americas Two play-off. They beat the Argentine representatives and last year’s champions, Jaguares XV, three times and, while no one wants to lose, the 24-13 defeat by Uruguayan franchise Penarol in the final certainly removed any complacency or sense of achievement, focusing the team on what lay ahead.

Martin Sigren, a key player in the Selknam team and Cóndores captain, tells Rugby World: “It was a bitter lesson but it helps us push hard and be stronger. We know our strengths and weaknesses. It is up to us.”

A few weeks on from that SLAR defeat, Sigren was delivering an emotional post-match interview after his Chile team had booked a spot a France 2023.

“It really means so much,” he said after the win over the Eagles in Denver. “The sacrifices this group has done, (there were) lots of moments when it really felt uphill, where we kept receiving nothing in return. We kept pushing and finally we get the big reward.

“For all my Chilean people, I hope this is an example that when people get together, when a group is convicted in doing something (plays with conviction), impossible things can be achieved.”

So how did Chile get to this point? What has happened to take them to the final place in Pool D alongside Argentina, England, Japan and Samoa? SLAR is part of it but there is more…

The head coach

Selknam’s campaign was a crucial testing ground for Condores head coach Pablo Lemoine. Although not directly involved with Selknam during SLAR, one of his assistants – former Argentina international Nicolás Bruzzone – led the team; Lemoine has been the behind-the-scenes brain.

Lemoine previously tormented the country he has coached since late 2018, both as player and coach for Uruguay. “Uruguay always needed to beat Chile to advance to tournaments – Rugby World Cups, World Rugby U20 trophies, other international events. It was either them or us,” recalls Lemoine.

In almost two-and-a-half decades of involvement with Uruguayan rugby, he lost against Chile once as a player in 2002, once as an assistant coach in 2011 and a third time in the build-up to the 2015 World Cup. “Every one of those losses really hurt,” he says.

Seeing him fly west and cross the Andes was interesting. Tormentor to mentor within a two-hour flight. Lemoine had been successful with Uruguayan rugby, setting up their high-performance programme and leading them to RWC 2015 after winning 48 caps at prop from 1995 to 2010. Now he has done the same with Chile.

The high-performance programme

Cristian Rudloff, a former international referee and current Chile federation chairman, had just taken over running the game in his country when Lemoine was hired. He says: “I felt, in 2018-19, that Chile had one last opportunity to embrace high performance; we’d had our chances but not taken them.”

For years, rugby was a game for the elite in Chile but the commitment was not always there; teams were full of promise but would generally underperform.

“When I arrived, things had to change if we did not want to lose the train,” explains Rudloff, known to all as ‘Lulo’. “Things have now changed thanks to players’ ambitions, players that were developed in amateur rugby and were pushing for changes.”

Chile had seen some level of high performance with their sevens team, competing against the best but continually failing to break into the World Sevens Series. Things stepped up with Lemoine’s arrival in September 2018.

He introduced two-hour training sessions at 6am – one on weights and one on the field – for a large group of players to do before their regular work day; players had to put the game in a new position in their life.

Over the next ten months the huge squad was gradually reduced, depending on players’ commitment and ability, as Lemoine honed in on those he needed moving forward.

When Selknam was born in 2020, players became professional and ‘normal’ hours were brought in. From being a young team with the need to develop talent, they became more mature and have a dedication beyond compare.

Veteran flanker Ignacio Silva is one of those players who has put his full weight behind the new dream. “Pablo changed Chilean rugby, how we see things, our vision, our ambition, and we embraced high performance,” says Silva.

“He worked on the players’ commitment; those who joined the training programme were those who really wanted to be there. We probably were not the best physically or technically but we were hungry.

“You have the Saavedra twins – Clemente and Domingo, the Garafulics (Matias and Nicolas). I am in fact the oldest by a distance, and then comes Martin Sigren, the captain who is in his mid-twenties.”

The future

The Chilean federation is fully committed to the new project. Qualifying for the World Cup should boost their growth; there are more than 15,000 players in the country, from the North to the South, which is a distance of 6,000km.

With an academy system in the biggest cities (Arica, Antofagasta, Viña del Mar, Santiago and Concepción), and two more in the making in Temuco and Puerto Montt, player identification and development will soon provide the next generation. Then at the top level, some 30 senior players get salaries or stipends.

“Unfortunately, we can’t compete with what they would be getting paid if they were working on their chosen professions, but they are living their dream, earning money for their work and sacrifice for the game they love,” explains Rudloff.

“We come from two previous years that were very hard, with Covid-19. We were lucky that when the country was shut, thanks to a law for sports, players were allowed to prepare, albeit with no games on the horizon.”

This, and the first complete season of SLAR, made them ready for the RWC 2023 qualifying games against Canada last year. Losing 22-21 in the last minute in Langford, Chile hosted the Canadians in Vina del Mar, beating them 33-24 to win 54-46 on aggregate.

It was Chile who progressed to the Americas Two play-offs while Canada failed to qualify for a men’s World Cup for the first time in their history.

Next up were the USA, who had lost their series against Uruguay in 2021. The Eagles triumphed in the first game in Santiago – by the exact same scoreline as that first Canada match, 22-21 – and they were leading 19-0 in the second leg in Denver. But Chile fought their way back into the match and eventually won 31-29 thanks to a late Santiago Videla penalty.

That meant Chile went through to Pool D at next year’s tournament with a 52-51 aggregate win – no wonder they were celebrating in the pool.

“To me, Chile’s a sleeping giant in rugby,” says Lemoine. “There are available funds, facilities, players and there isn’t much competition from other sports. The level of support has risen and we are getting the backing of clubs and sponsors like never before.

“This is a national team that represents all of the country and we have worked hard to take them around the country.”

Now they will representing their country at France 2023.

This article originally appeared in the August 2022 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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