JUAN Manuel Leguizamon has played 29 times for Argentina, on numerous occasions in the English Premiership and Heineken Cup, and more recently for Stade Francais.
But at 25, he has the air of a young man who still doesn’t quite believe how life has turned out for him since leaving his native Santiago in northern Argentina for the capital, Buenos Aires, where he joined San Isidro, the most famous club in the country.
The game in Argentina is completely amateur and when it comes to picking the national side, the understandable focus is on those professionals plying their trade abroad and most especially in Europe.
Nevertheless, the 6’3”, 15 ½ stone giant did well enough for San Isidro to capture the attention of the Pumas’ management and he was first capped against Japan in 2005, celebrating the occasion with a try. He played three matches that year against Italy and also lined out against South Africa and Scotland.
Fate then took a hand because he caught the attention of the Barbarians selectors for the Lions Tour pipe-opener in Cardiff. The Ba-Baas were distinctly unlucky to be held to a draw, with Leguizamon one of their stars, and he did enough to convince London Irish that he was just the kind of back row forward they needed.
So Juan Manuel packed his bags and headed off on his first professional assignment in good time for the 2005-6 Premiership season. His influence was immediately apparent, with Irish receiving widespread commendation for attracting such a talent to their ranks — especially as he didn’t break the bank.
As he approached for our chat, Leguizamon wore a broad smile and made just one small request: “If you could speak slowly, it would be great.”
He went on to talk about his early days in Santiago. Football is the national sport in Argentina and Leguizamon admits that Diego Maradona is like “number one, a god” to him. Nevertheless, all his family played rugby for the Santiago Lawn Tennis club, where they played just about every sport.
His brother and father played in the same team up to three years ago and he quickly progressed through the underage structure, representing Argentina at U19 and U21 level before moving to Buenos Aires.
“All rugby in Argentina is amateur but the San Isidro club is one of the best in the country and I had friends there,” he explains. “The game against the Lions changed everything after that. London Irish called me and we agreed terms and by the beginning of August I was starting my first season for London Irish.
“That was tough, for I was used to being with family and friends, but after a few months I was fine and it was great. The change to professional rugby wasn’t that difficult for me because I had played for Argentina and I was training like a professional.
“I always wanted to play professional rugby so it was adios to the law and physiotherapy courses I had been studying up to then. The way I looked at it was that I was being paid to play rugby. It was good to be paid for something you love to do.”
Leguizamon’s laid-back attitude and good humour quickly made him a favourite at London Irish. Indeed, he goes so far as to say: “It was like my second family. I had a great relationship with all the players and the staff. I had a great time playing for them but after three years and with the one foreign player rule, I began thinking of a change.
“Then Stade Francais came for me and I signed for them even though my contract at London Irish wasn’t over.”
Ironically, he now carries an Italian passport because his great grandfather came from there, and that in turn eradicates any problems he might have had with the rule concerning “foreign” players.
Juan Manuel played in both summer Tests against Ireland in 2007 and against France, Georgia and Namibia in the World Cup. But he missed out on the Ireland game before returning for the knock-out section against Scotland and South Africa, a game that finally brought their French odyssey to an end.
So he wouldn’t be as familiar as, say, Felipe Contepomi and Mario Ledesma on one side and Donncha O’Callaghan and Denis Leamy on the other, with the intense rivalry that has developed between the two countries over the past decade or so.
“I don’t really know why that is the case,” he claimed. “Rugby is a sport played with, how do you say it, the gloves off. There’s a lot of aggression and it’s always very hard to play against Ireland. Things happen inside the field but afterwards, it’s forget it.”
HE is loud in his praise of Ireland and particularly the team’s number ten, but all he will add to that is he expects a really tough game, largely because he has yet to see the video of last week’s game against New Zealand.
“It will be very difficult to maintain the standard that got us to the World Cup semi-finals,” he accepts. “Some of the older players have left and we have new players arriving but we have time to prepare for the next World Cup. It will be tough because we had an awesome team and group in the last one.
“We badly need more competition and if we could play in the Tri-Nations or the Six Nations, it would be great for us to play more games in the year. There are a lot of people working for that but we are just players.”
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