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

The Daily Telegraph - Rugby World Cup - - Sport Rugby World Cup 2015 - Jonathan Liew

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

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