Meet the South American lock blazing a trail with Agen in the Top 14
Introducing Andrés Zafra, Colombian rugby star
Team-mates at Agen suggest that Andrés Zafra goes quietly about his business, but in the lock’s hometown of Cúcuta, right on the Colombia-Venezuela border, people tend to be a little more vociferous.
“Every region of Colombia is different, kind of similar to England or France, in the way they speak, their habits,” Zafra, 24, begins. “People from Cúcuta are known for speaking quite loudly! But on the whole, everyone’s very nice and the region, in North Santander, is quite well known for having very pretty women…
“It’s a little bit different there, the economy depends a lot on Venezuela and merchandise from Venezuela. A lot of people go into Venezuela and buy things a bit cheaper and then come back and sell them in Colombia. So it’s a bit more multicultural, obviously being right on the border.
“There is some violence there but the main characteristic is it’s very hot and in ten minutes, you can walk into Venezuela. Life’s a little bit cheaper than in Bogotá or Medellín, or some of the biggest cities.”
We don’t have time to discuss the fuel-smuggling economy of the region as Zafra peels off to make another team session, but what shines through is his own drive to grind. He is, after all, a trailblazer; a Colombian in a major professional league.
He says of his attitude: “In Colombia you have to work if you want to have a good life. That’s what you have to do and so since I was very young, my parents taught me to work very hard. In France I’ve had to do the same, so it’s natural for me. I like working. If you work hard, you get paid and I enjoy it, so that’s how I am.”
As a Colombian in one of Europe’s elite competitions, playing in France’s Top 14, Zafra is a role model. But before you get to the significance of that, you need to know how he got to France in the first place.
An only child, the forward was a footballer first – he did not pick up a rugby ball until he was 15 and imagined he was Messi, not McCaw. Even today, if he gets a chance to scramble around after a soccer ball, he leaps at it.
But as a teenager an acquaintance persistently asked Zafra (now 6ft 6in) to give the oval ball a go. On the fourth invitation, Zafra relented and he loved it. The coaches coveted his frame, his approach, and he was soon standing out.
At Universidad Francisco de Paula Santander, he did two years of an electromagnetic engineering degree and played for the university club before a unique opportunity presented itself. With the national age-grades, Zafra was given the chance to play in Peru, Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina and even made his senior Test debut as a teenager. But he would push further into foreign territory.
On his initial move to Europe, Zafra explains: “It came about through a foundation called Rugby French Flair, who develop social rugby in countries where it doesn’t really exist.
“They were in Colombia and they spotted me, said I had lots of potential. Then a few months later they got back in touch and gave me the chance to come to France with a tourist passport, for three months to play in Fédérale 3. A member of the association was a coach at the Givors club.
“I stayed with him and he helped me a lot. He taught me French and obviously coached as well. I played three months for them, and then got an espoirs contract at Lyon. I spent two years with Lyon on an espoirs contract but at the same time I was doing a (course) on ‘maintenance of industrial equipment’.”
He went on to join Agen in 2018. So how was it, deciding to make your life in France?
“It was a challenge for me,” an upbeat Zafra replies. “I said that if I take the espoirs contract, I really want to make a go of it. My family were very proud. They were a bit sad because I’m an only child, but they’re very proud, very happy for me. I really wanted to see if I could make a career of it.
“They haven’t been able to come over (to France) yet – they were meant to come over this year, but obviously with Covid that’s not been possible. But every summer we have three to five weeks off so usually I go back then.”
A smile briefly dances across Zafra’s face when asked if he’s famous in Colombia. That would be a stretch, but rugby fans know him and he is gladdened to be the Colombian pioneer making the first forays into the upper reaches of the game. He does not necessarily feel pressure to represent a whole country and its rugby abroad, but he is motivated by the idea of showing ambitious compatriots what is possible.
He explains that rugby is not common in Colombian schools, but there is a thicket of clubs through certain regions. So while in Agen, his current club, is the only show in town, in major cities in Colombia, there are several join-up options for the amateur enthusiast.
What’s more, if thing’s improve, when the professional Superliga Americana de Rugby finally gets going, a team from Medellín is slated to play some part (though it is suggested in some reports that they will be underfunded compared to others and will play a much smaller role in the league).
The lock admits that he does miss his family back in Colombia, but while Covid is peaking there his family have kept sheltered and safe. It is a relief.
You can understand the low-level ache one feels when far from home. There is no implication that this sense of distance has powered his other life choices, but Zafra recently earnt his private pilot’s licence and he plans to take to the skies when his rugby career comes to a halt.
Whether that is in Europe or in South America he does not say. He will want to soar with Agen first, regardless.
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