When Pablo Lemoine is asked to sum up his squad of players in one word, Chile’s head coach has his answer ready. “Brave,” he says. “This group is very brave.”
The tag of being a World Cup debutant can be overwhelming, but Chile have hit the World Cup running with their fired-up displays.
Granted, the lowest ranked team in the competition - sitting at No 22 in the world rankings - have lost both of their opening games against Japan and Samoa. But there has been a grittiness about Chile’s performances that can be traced back to the magical way in which they qualified for the tournament.
It was Rodrigo Fernandez’s sensational solo try for the Condores, scored against the United States on a Santiago pitch which resembled a muddy Glastonbury field, that helped clinch Chile’s qualification last year.
Fernandez, Chile’s fly-half and an intrepid playmaker, gathered the ball in his own 22 then snaked through the American defence in a 70-metre blitz before dotting down.
Lemoine’s side still lost 22-21 but a stunning fightback in the second leg in Colorado, having trailed by 20 points on aggregate after the opening half-hour, delivered a 31-29 victory and saw them qualify for their first World Cup thanks to a 52-51 aggregate win. Fernandez’s cameo was immortalised by World Rugby, which awarded him the try-of-the-year award.
Chile’s momentous victory was the culmination of a three-year project led by Lemoine, a star of Uruguayan rugby who coached his country at the 2015 World Cup. When he came on board at the start of 2019, Chile were ranked 30th in the world, hadn’t won a match for three years and were desperate to snap a 14-match losing streak. The former prop has spearheaded a revival of Chilean rugby.
By his own admission, Lemoine says he is a different coach to the one who took Uruguay to the 2015 tournament. He chuckles when I ask if he looks up to any other coaches in the game, although he does name check Fabien Galthie. “My focus is always on myself,” he says. “I’ve evolved as a coach. I think I have a lot more patience than I did in 2015. In the past, there’s been times when I’ve been overly excited, or emotional. I’ve probably mellowed a bit.”
Under his watch, Chile have been busy roping in new fans in France. South Africa’s World Cup winning trio of Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth and Cheslin Kolbe were spotted in the crowd for the Condores’ second group game against Samoa last weekend, ahead of the Springbok’s 76-0 rout of Romania in Bordeaux.
Kolisi even shared a passage of Chile’s defensive play on his Instagram account, which has close to 900,000 followers. Chile’s captain, Martin Sigren, has less than 9,000. Such profiling is the stuff of dreams for Lemoine’s men, who are rarely given a platform by rugby royalty given that most of the squad only ever mix with themselves.
The glimpses of cohesiveness the side have shown are underpinned by a rather brilliant stat: 27 members of Lemoine’s 33-man squad play their club rugby at Selknam, Chile Rugby’s professional franchise, in the Super Rugby Americas league, where players earn salaries of around £1,200 a month, which is what some England men would earn for posting a paid partnership on their own social media accounts.
“The Super Americas is of a high level, it’s more or less the same standard as England’s second division,” he says, “but it’s a great platform for players from across South American nations to develop.”
Lemoine, who fell into rugby at school in Montevideo and became the first Uruguayan professional player when he joined Bristol in 1998, makes no secret of his desire for more of his players to play in Europe like Sigren, his captain, who spent a season at Doncaster Knights last year.
He might not have to wait too long. Diego Escobar, the Chilean hooker, fullback Inaki Ayarza and scrum-half Marcelo Torrealba are among a collective of players who have impressed and will be catching the eye of scouts in France. The same can be said of Fernandez, who scored Chile’s opening try in their bright start against Japan just six minutes into their World Cup debut.
Against the Brave Blossoms, Chile hardly disgraced themselves, showing flashes of eye-catching passages against the 2019 quarter-finalists. They were also in Samoa’s faces up until half-time before slipping to a 43-10 defeat.
But England, given they have ironed out some of their teething problems, will be an altogether different proposition and Lemoine knows it. “England are England. They have been champions, World Cup finalists. Semi-finalists,” he says. “But we will see. For this team, they have already created a legacy by simply being here.” For Chile, it is more about the journey, rather than the destination.