Uruguay’s students and semi-pros set for big stage
South Americans have given up a lot to make it to the World Cup and are determined to make most of it, they tell
A strong smell wafts through the ground floor of the Celtic Manor hotel in south Wales. As you approach a little closer, the smell is accompanied by a faint sizzling noise: the rendering of fat, the lick of flame.
Finally, out on the patio, all is revealed. A giant open grill, covered from end to end in dozens of thick steaks: 30 kilograms of them, to be precise. The Uruguayans have arrived.
“We call it asado,” says Diego Magno, a stern-looking back-rower with sunken eyes and forearms as beefy as his dinner. “It’s like a barbecue. Meat and fire.”
Naturally, they have brought their own supplies: all the beef is certified Uruguayan, dispatched from home with the compliments of the country’s National Meat Institute.
“No hormones, no antibiotics,” insists Ignacio, the team media officer, waving a hand across the rows of gently charring steaks.
With just days to go before Uruguay
‘We don’t think about winning or losing. We concentrate on getting the best out of every player’
begin their World Cup campaign today against Wales at the Millennium Stadium – a game in which the bookmakers have priced them at 500-1 – part of you wonders whether a meat feast is really the ideal preparation. And yet, asado is close to a religion in Uruguay, and many of their squad visiting Britain for the first time are keen to install a few home comforts in this strange foreign land.
Players and staff stroll through corridors clutching little metal goblets of mate, the traditional South American herbal drink.
In a competition where their resolve and unity will be tested like never before, opportunities for team-building are rarely spurned. A rare day off on Thursday sees about a dozen members of the squad trooping off to play crazy golf.
The rest of the time is spent training, preparing, chilling out. For many players, this last activity is a luxury beyond measure. The Uruguayans are almost entirely semi-professional, with most combining their sport with a day job or university study.
Captain Santiago Vilaseca is a banker, Nicolas Klappenbach is a doctor, Jeronimo Etcheverry an economics student. And so relaxation is an indulgence with which few are familiar.
“We rest like professional players,” marvels Magno, who runs a software and digital media company. “That’s a difference. In Uruguay, we can’t rest a lot of the time, because we have to go to study or go to work, and then we have to train.”
Front-rower German Kessler, an agronomy student, adds: “It’s not easy, especially for young kids. It requires a lot of will to play rugby, because it’s not very popular in Uruguay. Not as popular as football, anyway. The main difference is that we’re a mainly amateur team, and everyone else is basically professional.”
Expectations of this Uruguay team remain low. Ranked 19th in the world, their record inspires only pity. They have played 45 times against their neighbours Argentina, and lost every single time.
England beat them 113-13 on their way to winning the World Cup in 2003, and the fear is that after being drawn in the so-called Pool of Death,
Los Teros (The Lapwings) have been written off by most observers as fodder, try-scoring practice for the others in the group.
And they are probably right. Yet when the big sides begin to run up Space Invaders scores against them, perhaps we should withhold our derision, and recognise the obstacles the Uruguayans have faced simply to get here in the first place.
As well as having less time to train and a limited domestic structure, they are without their only professional player, the veteran Castres lock Rodrigo Capó Ortega, who retired just months before the start of the tournament in order not to miss the birth of his child.
Qualification for the World Cup last year has at least allowed the Uruguayan Rugby Union to pay its players a small retainer. But for most of them, for most of their careers, this is a pastime that has cost, rather than made, them money. Some have been fired from their jobs for taking too much time off.
“Yes, I have to pay for playing rugby,” Magno says. “It’s very difficult. You have to have a very good job. In my case, I have a very good partner who is taking care of the business this year. But other players have a lot of problems.”
The hope is that this World Cup, Uruguay’s first since 2003, can catalyse interest in the sport back home, where it still has a reputation of something of an aristocratic sport, brought over by the British and played largely in the English-speaking schools and sports clubs they founded.
But slowly, things may be changing. The second leg of their emotional World Cup qualification play-off against Russia was watched by a crowd of 14,000 in Montevideo’s Charrua Stadium, and rugby is now probably the country’s third-most popular sport behind football and basketball.
“I think Los Teros have made a good job in that respect,” Magno says. “We have a lot of new players, children playing, a lot more schools playing rugby, and that’s important.”
The question is how long the Uruguayan public can maintain interest in a losing side. Though Uruguay have never left a World Cup without a win – they beat Spain in 1999 and Georgia in 2003 – it would be a major shock if they were to maintain that record. The team’s stated aim is not to win, but simply to compete.
“We don’t think about winning or losing,” Magno says. “We concentrate on getting the best out of every player that goes on the field. We say: play with garra (claws) and that’s important. We have very, very tough matches.”
Yet the overall mood is one of wide-eyed optimism. Coach Pablo Lemoine, a former prop for Bristol and Stade Français, describes it not as the Group of Death, but the Group of Hope.
Up front is where Uruguay are strongest, and there may be chances to puncture a few holes in even the best sides. Beyond that, their best chance is to stick together and hope for the best.
“Uruguay traditionally has a good forward game,” says Kessler, a burly 21-year-old hooker with a sturdy neck, a big round face and bushy eyebrows. “Set-pieces are one of the key ingredients in our planning of the game. In many cases, the other teams are technically much stronger. But in terms of passion and the will to play and to win, we’re equal.”
Is he frightened? “No, not at all. I’m just keen to play against the best in the world.” And this, you find, is the prevailing vibe. Uruguay may not be that good, but more than perhaps any other nation at this World Cup, they have earned their place, and are determined to enjoy it.
“For all the problems we have,” Magno explains, “we try to find a way to be here. Because it’s the best experience of our lives.”
And then, politely, he makes his excuses and returns to the team room, which has just taken delivery of 30kg of prime Uruguayan steak.
Jump to it: Uruguay’s squad get used to the Millennium Stadium pitch ahead of today’s game against Wales, their first in a World Cup since 2003