Rugby World Cup 2015 was always going to be a massive challenge for Uruguay.
Drawn in the proverbial ‘Pool of Death’ alongside three of the world’s top six countries at the time in hosts England, two-time champions Australia and RWC 2011 semi-finalists Wales – and that's not forgetting Fiji – no-one expected anything other than a whitewash. To win a game like they had done in each of their previous appearances on the game’s greatest stage would take something special, especially as veteran Rodrigo Capo Ortega had stayed behind in France to be with his pregnant wife.
Underdogs … and some
The term underdog did not even come close to doing justice to Uruguay’s status as they took to the field for the first time against Wales in Cardiff. Los Teros had only won three times in the past year, most notably in the home leg of the repechage against Russia that secured them their place at England 2015 and had never beaten a tier one nation in 48 previous attempts.
Against Wales, Uruguay started brightly and found themselves 6-0 up against their subdued opponents, thanks to two penalties from Felipe Berchesi. The fly-half added another before the break but, by then, Wales had overcome a stuttering start to make their dominance felt. In the second half, they pulled away to win 54-9.
Next up were Australia, at Villa Park in Birmingham. As with Wales, it was a totally new experience for Los Teros as the sides had never met in a test before. The Wallabies ran in 11 tries to win 65-3, with Uruguay’s only points coming once again from the boot of Berchesi.
Almost 12 years had passed since head coach Pablo Lemoine scored Uruguay’s last Rugby World Cup try – in the 111-13 defeat to England at RWC 2003 – but they ended that barren run in their third game, against Fiji in Milton Keynes, when hooker Carlos Arboleya battered his way over from close range.
The moment sparked wild celebrations among the Uruguay camp – and the biggest cheer of the night from a record 30,048 crowd at a rain-soaked Stadium MK. Scrum-half Agustin Ormaechea, son of Los Teros legend Diego, doubled their try tally for the tournament in the second half but his joy was short-lived after receiving a red card from referee JP Doyle following a second yellow.
Ormaechea received no further punishment in the form of a ban so was free to play in Uruguay’s final game, the dead rubber against fallen hosts England at the resplendent Manchester City Stadium. Nonetheless, it was a special occasion for Alejo Corral as he came off the bench to win his 50th cap, four days after Mario Sagario had brought up his half-century against Fiji. Berchesi kicked Uruguay into an early lead but that was as good as it got for Los Teros, who succumbed to a 60-3 defeat.
While ending the tournament winless, England 2015 was still a positive experience for Los Teros in many ways and gave root to the belief that a place among the world’s top 20 ranked nations was an attainable goal for a country on the up.
With an increasing number of players playing professionally overseas and the formation of a High Performance Centre back home in Montevideo, the world of Uruguayan rugby known by Agustin Ormaechea and the rest of the class of 2015 was very different to that of his father’s era when they took to the field for the first time at a Rugby World Cup, on 2 October, 1999.
In an all-amateur clash played out in front of a small crowd in the Scottish Borders, Uruguay began their Rugby World Cup adventure with a 27-15 win over Spain thanks to two tries in the final three minutes.
The foundations for the victory were laid earlier, though, with the South American side’s mighty pack, led by veteran captain and number eight Ormaechea (main picture), regularly bulldozing the Spanish forwards into submission.
Ormaechea fittingly had the honour of scoring his side’s first-ever Rugby World Cup try and would have had another had referee Chris White not blown for a penalty try with the Spanish back-pedalling over their own line as if on roller skates. Full-back Alfonso Cardoso and replacement back Juan Menchaca added a bit of panache to an otherwise error-strewn affair with two good tries.
'Defending can be fun'
Uruguay’s next test came against Scotland at a largely deserted Murrayfield. In the face of a determined defence, Scotland were unable to find any of the rhythm that had seen them run in 16 tries in winning the last-ever Five Nations title earlier that year.
Uruguay tackled themselves to a standstill and made a nuisance of themselves at every breakdown to keep the scoreline down to 43-12 in Scotland’s favour. "We showed the world that defending can be fun," said captain Ormaechea, who, once again, led by example.
The soon-to-be-retired Ormaechea was given a fitting send-off as Uruguay turned in another rousing performance to stifle defending champions South Africa. For a 33-minute period in the second half, admittedly while South Africa were down to 14 men following the dismissal of Brendan Venter at the end of the first half, Uruguay kept the mighty Springboks scoreless. When the whistle blew, with a full-time score of 39-3 to South Africa, Ormaechea was chaired off the field by his team-mates.
Nine of the players who lost to South Africa in Glasgow took to the field when Uruguay faced the Springboks again four years later in Australia. South Africa got off to an explosive start and Uruguay found themselves 19-0 down in as many minutes. Two Diego Aguirre penalties reduced the arrears by six, but the South African scoring continued unabated, and scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen went on to complete a hat-trick in a 72-6 win.
Some 278 minutes since their last Rugby World Cup try at Galashiels, Uruguay – now coached by Ormaechea – finally crossed the whitewash in the next match against Samoa. The Samoans, though, were out of sight at 29-0 up by the time number eight Capo Ortega pounced on a loose ball to dot down five minutes before half-time. Samoa went on to score 10 tries in a 60-13 win.
Having beaten Spain in the RWC 1999 ‘battle of the minnows’, Uruguay targeted Georgia as their next realistic scalp. The majority of the 35,000 fans inside Aussie Stadium in Sydney appeared to favour Rugby World Cup debutants Georgia, but none would disagree Uruguay were worthy of their 24-12 win on the day.
Los Teros scored three tries to nil and the margin of victory would have been greater had a number of place kicks and drop goal attempts, particularly in the first half, gone over. Cardoso added to his try at RWC 1999 with the first of Uruguay’s scores, and he was joined on the scoresheet by Diego Lamelas and Nicolas Brignoni.
Routed by England
With a registered playing population of only 2,500 in 2003, Uruguay and eventual champions England were worlds apart in terms of resources. And the clash between the two in Brisbane was the mismatch everyone feared as England eased to a record 111-13 victory. That said, Uruguay put in a spirited performance, and for a 10-minute period in the first half they had England on the back foot.
Trailing 42-6 at half-time, Uruguay came out determined to score a try, spurning two penalty chances near the England posts. Their adventure paid off when giant prop Pablo Lemoine muscled his way past Danny Grewcock to score in the 45th minute. From then on in, though, the one-way traffic resumed, England running in 17 tries to send the South Americans home on the back of a heavy loss.
Diego Ormaechea became the oldest player to appear in a Rugby World Cup match when he took to the field against South Africa on 15 October, 1999, aged 40 years and 26 days. He also holds the record for being the oldest ever try scorer after dotting down against Spain at Galashiels earlier in the same tournament.
Qualifying for RWC 2019 as Americas 2 at the expense of Canada, thus avoiding the repechage – their route to the last tournament England. The 38-29 win away to Canada in the first leg in Vancouver must rank as one of Uruguay’s finest-ever performances and ensured their earliest qualification for a Rugby World Cup.
The 111 points conceded by England in Brisbane at RWC 2003. It is England’s biggest winning margin at a Rugby World Cup.
“I am pleased to see my record go and it is fantastic to score two tries. I think we were unlucky not to score more,” Pablo Lemoine speaking after Uruguay ended their 12-year wait for a Rugby World Cup try in the defeat to Fiji at RWC 2015.
Daniel Herrera, coach at RWC 1999, affords himself a little dig at Uruguay’s neighbours after Los Teros’ first-ever match at the tournament ended in a win over Spain. "After six years of working for this when our older brothers (Argentina) had been in four World Cups and only won one game, well, it's like being world champions. It's almost a miracle for a country like ours to be here.”
Fly-half hero Felipe Berchesi scored exactly half of Uruguay’s points with his five penalties at RWC 2015. His 15-point tally is two short of the all-time tournament best for an Uruguayan. That record is held by Diego Aguirre with 17 at RWC 1999.