It was one of those weeks. On Saturday, as rugby was given the green light in Uruguay after a four-month COVID-19 induced hiatus, Andrés Vilaseca took the field for his beloved British Schools Old Boys Club; within a couple of minutes he was limping off with an ankle injury.
Two days later, he was confirmed as captain of the Uruguayan team that will aim to reach its third consecutive Rugby World Cup come France 2023.
Vilaseca is the only Tero to have played every game in the last two World Cups, only missing the final 10 minutes of the game against Australia in Japan. First capped in 2013, only injury has prevented him from wearing the light blue jersey; his tally is 59 caps and counting.
“It was a huge honour to be asked to lead my country in the next cycle,” he says from Montevideo, happy that the secret is out.
Focus on France 2023
Coach Esteban Meneses and High Performance Director Guzmán Barreiro chose the inside centre for his stature within the team, his approach to the game, and the leadership qualities that he hopes to carry.
“I will be me. Each captain has his ways, but I am not one to speak too much,” Vilaseca reflects. “I am quite calm and I think I transmit security and a cool head”. This coming from a guy nicknamed Fatiga (Fatigue).
“That [the nickname] came when I was younger and loved playing but wasn’t the quickest out of bed,” he laughs.
Yet Vilaseca will be the first to run through walls for his team. He has already done it, repeatedly.
“If the team has worked hard and we are convinced of what we are doing, then the captain only needs to make few decisions. I also have a very positive group of leaders.” Alejandro Nieto, Santiago Civetta, Nicolás Freitas, Ignacio Dotti and Rodrigo Silva will be on hand for support.
“As a group, we are already working towards our goal: France 2023.”
A double try-scorer against Canada when the ticket to Japan 2019 was secured in Montevideo, Vilaseca recalls events on 6 January, 2016, when then-new coach, Esteban Meneses, was being introduced to the team for the first time.
“He was very clear: direct qualification to RWC 2019. That achieved, when the pools were announced, wins against Fiji and Georgia were the goal.”
“It was all a process,” recalls former captain Juan Manuel Gaminara. “As players, we did all that was in our hands to go to be up to the challenge; the Uruguayan Rugby Union also supported us and the Charrúa HP Centre was a great place to work.”
Pablo Lemoine had taken Uruguay to their first RWC in twelve years. “It was a lot of work and a satisfying experience; for 2019, it was much more professional,” says flanker Gaminara.
A family legacy
Gaminara followed Santiago Vilaseca as Tero captain. The lock was an eleventh-hour choice to lead Uruguay at Rugby World Cup 2015.
“It was great to have him as captain,” says Vilaseca, seven years younger than his brother. “Our mother and family were there to support us; great memories."
Vilaseca’s father passed away in 2009 and would have loved to see his sons at the biggest event: “He didn’t play rugby but was a huge fan of us.”
The two Vilasecas and Gaminara hail from the British Schools of Montevideo and its Old Boys Club. “There is huge pride in this; it speaks of how they educated us into being good people, teaching us the good values of rugby,” says Vilaseca.
The processes to reach Rugby World Cups 2015 and 2019 were different. “2015 was going into the unknown. By 2016 we had the experience of having played in a World Cup and knew what we needed to be more competitive. Players coming through the system were better prepared and Meneses, a great motivator, gave us a new game plan. Once he convinced us of the goal, everything was easier.”
The structure put in place by the Unión de Rugby del Uruguay was successful, but Vilaseca also highlights Craig White, a fitness advisor provided by World Rugby, and Juan José Grande, a sports psychologist, who worked wonders for the players’ confidence and their improved performance.
Gaminara recalls Grande’s influence in Uruguay’s biggest win, against Fiji at the Kamaishi Memorial Stadium during Rugby World Cup 2019: “As much as we spoke, he had never asked me what I would say to the team before the game. I always prepared notes and when we discussed this, he asked me to keep that message for the halftime, rather than before the game. He was spot on!
“What he did to change our mentality was incredible! Craig is also very important in what he instilled in us as a group.”
The loss against Georgia came after a quick turn-around, in a day of extreme heat. “Against Australia and Wales, it was good to know that we could compete and see a number of players stand up to the challenge. The Wallaby game in Oita was the hardest of the eight games I was involved in at Rugby World Cup,” Gaminara recalls.
A new challenge led by a new leader
The challenges that lie ahead are huge. 2023 is already the focus and Meneses has his leader.
“Andrés epitomises the values that represent us: discipline, sacrifice, humility and excellence, understanding the need to always be the best version of ourselves,” says head coach Meneses.
Sudamérica Rugby is working on the possibility of having a regional championship as soon as October. So far ahead of the competition, Meneses saw it fit to name a captain. “It is the start of a new process with a new captain and a group of leaders. The sooner we knew who is and are leading, it is to the benefit of the team,” he says.
Vilaseca, who had a bout of COVID-19 in the early days, will lead a new era of Uruguayan rugby, putting to use his experience of the previous two campaigns. “We know what it will require. We are hungry and desperately want to be in France 2023.”