RUGBY WORLD CUP 2015 IS ALREADY A SMASH HIT AND NOT JUST FOR THE RUGBY; HEAVING GROUNDS, CARNIVAL ATMOSPHERES, IT’S ONE OF THE GREAT, GLOBAL GATHERINGS AND PABLO IS RIGHT AT THE HEART OF IT.
Pablo is with us for the World Cup. What do you mean, ‘Pablo who?’ How can you not know Pablo? He’s bigger than Burgess, broader than Bastareaud and has been since he was in the Sixth Form with Mrs. Simmons at Colegio Nacional, in San Isidro, Buenos Aires. Frankly, he’s about as easy to miss as a bison at a bus stop.
‘So what was Maria-Ines like at school, then?’ I asked him – sotto voce, obviously – as we sat on the sofa and clinked beers ahead of the big game between Italy and Canada last weekend. He thought about it for a few, cautious seconds. ‘She very quiet’, he said, eventually. ‘She not say anything very much, never angry, never being loud.’ I raised a dubious eyebrow, still mindful of the scalding I’d got that very morning for forgetting to do the recycling. ‘Well,’ he said, clearly reading my mind, ’then she meet you.’
This World Cup has been top of Pablo’s Bucket List for as long as he can remember, planned over the course of a year with the kind of attention to detail that took Eisenhower into Normandy and at almost the same cost; ‘mas o menos 100,000 pesos’, he says, which – astonishingly – is about a third of his salary. So far, he has thrilled to Twickenham and France against Italy, sat like a goldfish in the bowl that is Wembley watching his beloved Pumas get stuck into the All Blacks and met a sixty-year-old transvestite on the train to Cardiff ahead of Fiji against Australia. ‘We say ‘good morning’ but that’s it,’ he says. ‘She look like my Uncle Alfredo.’
Rugby has been his life for thirty-five years. He first played at ‘Banco Nacion’ with the iconic Argentinian fly half, Hugo Porta, albeit when Porta was club captain and Pablo was in the second row with the Under Tens. His other claim to rugby fame is sharing the same birthday – 9th March 1970 – as the mighty Martin Johnson, another man for his mantelpiece. ‘I like second rows and I always like play there,’ he says. ‘You break faces and you do the – how you say – the guilty work. In Argentina we call it ‘the kitchen’, the scrums, the rucks, the mauls (or as he deliciously puts it, ‘the scrams, the racks, the moles’) where the forwards are always fighting. I love the kitchen. It’s where the forwards prepare the ball to serve it to the backs.’
Pablo embodies the purest spirit of South American rugby, the ethos, the emotion of the game as best voiced – literally – in the team’s raucous rendition of ‘El Himno Nacional’ (‘let us live crowned in glory or let us swear in glory to die’.) Like most Argentinian forwards he’s more than happy talking scrums but unlike most Argentinian forwards, he’ll cheerfully tell you that he thinks the subject is overdone.
‘In the 70s San Isidro Club and ‘Veco’ Villegas invent ‘La Bajadita’ and the ‘El Empuje Coordinado,’ he says, ‘and then rugby in Argentina is just eight players. Seriously, I am in the Under Elevens at ‘Banco Nacion’ and we train an hour a week on the scrum. Then Hugo Porta says, ‘hey, this is crazy. How many scrum are there in a match. Six? Eight? If we don’t change, we die.’ So, slowly, we change. I think the scrum get in the way of the game in Argentina. In 2007 we have backs – Pichot, Contepomi, Hernandez and Corletto – and we are third. Now we play Georgia and we score fifty points with Imhoff, Cordero, Cubelli, Sanchez and Tuculet. THIS is Los Pumas. This is the beautiful game.’
But for all his patriotism and his Puma-ness, his guilty pleasure is New Zealand, his one other great rugby odyssey back in 1999 when he spent a fortnight island-hopping in the Super Twelve to watch the likes of Spencer and Kelleher in Auckland and Mehrtens and Marshall in Christchurch. Before that in 1985 he was a fifteen–year-old in the crowd at Ferrocarril Oeste in Buenos Aires when Argentina and New Zealand drew 21-21 – ‘Hugo scores four penalties and three drops goals’ – and Pablo was clearly sensing another upset as he walked up Wembley Way in the first week of ‘El Mundial’. ‘The biggest game in my life’ he says, ‘and really, I am thinking we will draw again: two yellow cards, we are winning at half time, I think the All Blacks are nervous. Maybe the final score is justice but Argentina plays with big heart.’
Pablo and the World Cup could have been made for each other: the gregarious, larger-than-life rugby lunatic and the gregarious, larger-than-life rugby festival. Inexplicably strapped for sterling in a shop outside Wembley ahead of the All Blacks game, a family from New Zealand in the queue behind him coughed up seven quid to pay for his two bottles of water and his ‘Magnum’ and, believe me, had the roles been reversed, Pablo would’ve done exactly the same.
His love of rugby has even made him a missionary. Living in the Dominican Republic for two years in the 90s – he was working in a Coffee Bar in Santo Domingo – he helped run the ‘Caribbean Rugby Club’, a bunch of ‘fanaticos’ who had no pitch, no posts, no boots, two balls and barely enough players for seven-a-side. ‘We use a soccer pitch and we kick over the goals,’ he says, ‘and we drink rum after the game.’ He shakes his head. ‘Is dangerous thing, rum.’
He’s hoping to improve his English while he’s here – ‘is difficult, my mind is very small’ – and, between matches, catch up on the good old days at Colegio Nacional with Mrs. Wife. Hopefully he’ll help out with the recycling too. Apart from the transvestite on the train, he’s run into Serge Betsen in the street outside Twickenham and Argentina’s injured Saracen, Juan Figallo, on Wembley Way – ‘you know, his mother do the research on the opposition props and email it him every week.’ He’s hoping to bump into Ireland in the quarter-finals – ‘we don’t like each other; I think it start with Contepomi and O’Gara and everyone else now hate each other too’ – and, perhaps, England in the semi-finals where he suspects the dream might end. ’I don’t think we can win it,’ he says. ‘Right now, New Zealand is the best team but I don’t think they win too. Maybe Australia, maybe France.’
For Pablo, though, just being here is everything. Caught up in the chaos after the France/Italy game at Twickenham, it took him a train, a tube, a bus, a taxi and a thirty-minute hike to get back to his Central London hotel. He finally staggered in at three in the morning, a punishing five hours after the final whistle. ‘But I don’t mind, I am happy,’ he says, with a mile of a smile. ‘I see Twickenham, I sing on the train with the French people and we stop for some beers. What more you want?’ Indeed as good as Pablo would feel to make it to the final of this World Cup with Argentina, you suspect that for him – and for thousands like him – it‘s the incredible journey that he is savouring the most.
25 SEPTEMBER 2015