Matera: ‘Our players are in a difficult position’

Date published: October 7 2016

Argentina's young flanker has already travelled far more of the world than your average 23-year-old. But he is certainly not done experiencing it.

At that grand old age, Pablo Matera has already spent time playing in the Premiership, Super Rugby, the Rugby Championship and has been to a Rugby World Cup.

It would be glossing over the facts to describe Matera's two-year stint with Leicester as a success, marred by injuries and his unavailability due to international duty, although that never impacted those within Leicester's coaching staff and beyond recognising his talent. Which is why he already has 30 Tests cap at such a young age.

That rise to the top has meant a lot of time in airplane seats, which is why Matera might only be half-joking when he says: "If you're a nervous flyer you can't play (for us)."

Adding in the Super Rugby schedule with the Jaguares has upped Matera's air miles levels to another level. And there are more trips still to come.

"I've never counted them all, but [there have been] lots. I think we've already taken more than 30 planes this year. And we still still have five more matches to come… this weekend, Japan, Wales, England, Scotland. We still have a lot of trips," Matera said.

"It's difficult sometimes because the trips make you a little tired. But this week we haven't trained as hard. We concentrated more on tactics, how we're going to play in each part of the field; mostly walking, not much running, not much physical work and one less gym session.

"We're trying to rest our bodies for this game. Our last match [against New Zealand] was really tough and we have several injuries. I think we need to calm things down a little bit."

Time off more than ever feels like a rarity for the game's top players, and Matera plans to use his wisely after Saturday's game at Twickenham.

"I'm going to stay here for a little while, maybe 4-5 days. We get to travel the world but we don't get to know the places because we are always training and playing," he explained.

"I'm going to use this time off to try and look around."

As someone with experience of the English game it comes as no surprise to hear Matera speak highly of playing in Europe. In doing so he shines a spotlight on the quandry the top players for los Pumas now face, following the political decision to not select players based outside of Argentina.

Despite having already played overseas, Matera's interest in plying his trade abroad again is clear. Except it comes at a major price, as he observes: "We have lost some players because they have stayed in Europe. Playing here is very interesting for the players, amazing tournaments. I had to the chance to play here when I was younger and didn’t play very much because I was 19 and was learning the language.

"When we were young we would watch the Top 14 and Premiership and wanted to be part of it. Now we have the chance to play in a really good tournament back home, but I think playing in Europe is still a real interest for players, as is the possibility of a sabbaticals in the future.

"Now we need to choose between playing Pumas or in Europe, and it’s a really difficult position. It’s very difficult.

"I have chosen to play for Argentina and Super Rugby, because playing internationally is the best level a player can play at, but we’re always watching Europe and thinking it could be good as well.

"It’s still very new in Argentina with the new system with the Jaguares. But, we’re learning from the other teams. Teams like Australia now have that clause where players with more than 50/60 caps to go back to play. And I think Argentina is going to do that in the future, but I don’t know."

To leave Argentina now however would seem like bad timing. The country is riding a wave of optimism around the sport similar to the legends of 2007 and their run to a third-place finish.

The Jaguares didn't hit Super Rugby's heights in their first season but with better preparation, in a non-Rugby World Cup year, there is every chance they will make more an impact the second time around. Talk of a second Argentine franchise being introduced continues.

Matera adds: "Rugby in Argentina is getting really popular. There are lots more young kids starting to play rugby and looking for a club, and I think that is because of the World Cup.

"When I first started playing it was after the RWC in 2007 when we were third in the world. Now we have more games at home because of Super Rugby, with big teams coming to play in Argentina, and it’s making more people interested in rugby."

Being the country's first-ever professional team means that the Jaguares carry more responsibility than most new franchises, but there is a clear emphasis on transferring the enthusiasm from the amateur element of the game across, as difficult as that might be.

That passion has been an intrinsic part of Argentina's success, and retaining it matters to Matera and the players.

“All the players playing for the Pumas now come from amateur clubs, and before this year we had the Jaguares, the first professional team in Argentina.

“All of us play for the professional club now, but below that, the rugby in Argentina, they want to keep it amateur.

“That's why anyone who plays for the Jaguares is not allowed to play for the clubs. The Jaguares is a professional team but we want to make it as amateur an ethos as possible.

“We want the same culture of the clubs, staying there afterwards, having food at the club, to make it feel more like a social thing than just a professional club."

There is nothing amateur for Matera though about playing at Twickenham. Sacrificing home advantage in Buenos Aires or Salta to take the Rugby Championship abroad for the first time is cynically easy to pass off as a money-making exercise.

That said, the memories or Argentina excelling at last year's Rugby World Cup are still fresh in the mind, when los Pumas won over a ton of neutrals with their all-out attacking style, showcased best with their demolition of Ireland.

Even for a player who has experienced so much, returning to Twickenham will still get Matera pumped up – a young player wise beyond his years, taking the excitement of the amateur game from back home onto the biggest of stages.

“It makes you think 'wow, we are important'. You realise it's not just a rugby game," he said.

“We always love to play here, Wembley, Twickenham, they are the best places you can play rugby. So it's amazing. When I play here, I think I realise how important rugby is."

by Ben Coles