x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Pumas' top 10 is climbing the charts

Once regarded by a former Argentina teammate as the greatest fly-half in the world, Contepomi is ready to lead his nation.

Felipe Contepomi, centre, and the Argentina team are already in Dunedin ahead of the opening game of Pool B against England.
Felipe Contepomi, centre, and the Argentina team are already in Dunedin ahead of the opening game of Pool B against England.

In many ways, Felipe Contepomi, the Argentina captain, symbolises rugby union in the South American country.

Argentina may be ranked No 8 among the world's Test-playing nations, but at home the domestic game is still primarily amateur with most of the top players earning their living with professional clubs abroad.

Contepomi, who has just turned 34, has been playing in Europe since 1999, and will soon ply his trade with the French club Stade Francais.

After earning a medical degree several years ago, Contepomi expects to eventually practice as a doctor with his father, Carlos, in Buenos Aires. He also speaks several languages, is the father of two daughters, and is internationally recognised as a talented fly-half and centre.

In 2006, Agustin Pichot, the scrum-half with whom Contepomi formed such a telepathic understanding, felt he was the premier No 10 in the world.

"I rate Felipe as the greatest fly-half in world rugby today," Pichot said at the time. "I rate him higher than Dan Carter, who is undoubtedly an incredibly gifted player, but I still think Felipe is better.

"What I'd really like to see is what Felipe would be able to do wearing the All Blacks No 10 jersey. With such an outfit around him, he would be fantastic."

Contepomi lost some edge when he injured his knee playing with Toulon in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-finals. He missed all of the Pumas' matches that year, and when he returned to the national team he switched back to fly-half, where he started with the team in 1998.

He has been named at No 10 for the match with England and, along with the front-rower Mario Ledesma, will be playing at their fourth Rugby World Cup. Pedro Sporleder and Pichot are the only other Argentine players to have achieved this.

"Yes, this will be my last World Cup," Contepomi said. "I am at the end of my rugby career, but I am not melancholic about it. Following the injury, playing on this team has really fired me up again."

He is the kind of inspirational leader many believe is needed by Argentina, which regularly has obstacles in bringing their far-flung team together.

Most top countries play twice as many Tests as the Argentines, but that may change next year when the South Americans join Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in an expanded Tri Nations tournament.

Argentina open their World Cup campaign on Saturday against England, a side Contepomi knows very well - in particular Jonny Wilkinson, his former Toulon teammate.

He also knows that beating the English in the opener would deal a severe blow to a team usually considered the best side in the northern hemisphere.

"This is the World Cup and winning the first game will make everything else easier," Contepomi told the domestic media. "If not, it will be a fight. I can't promise a thing."

On arrival in New Zealand, Contepomi explained a key reason for wanting to beat England, aside from the competition points.

Contepomi told a news conference in Dunedin on Friday that a win over England could see Argentina finish top of the group, and avoid the possibility of a quarter-final match against New Zealand.

"World Cups are unbelievable in terms of anything can happen," he said.

"Obviously, for me, the All Blacks are the big favourite in the tournament. Everyone will try to avoid them if they can."

Argentina find themselves in a tough Pool B that also includes Scotland, Georgia and Romania. If England loses the opening game, they could be forced to beat home nations rival Scotland to reach the quarter-finals.

"We have four games in pool play, and we know we have to win at least three as a minimum. Four would be better," Contepomi said.

As a goal-kicker, Contepomi is not regarded as one of the world's leading marksman, but his boot could make him Argentina's all-time leading points-scorer during the tournament.

He is just 29 points behind Pumas great Hugo Porta, who tallied 590 points from 59 Tests in the 1970s and 80s. Contepomi has 562 from 71 Tests.

It would be a fitting way for Contepomi to exit the World Cup stage.