Lettizia Alcaraz could have enjoyed a life-long association with football. But the round ball’s loss has been rugby’s gain and she has become a stalwart of the women’s game in Argentina and South America.
Coming from Alvear, a small north-eastern town close to Brazil, rugby was never on her radar growing up.
In fact, this natural-born sportswoman stood out from a young age in football and futsal, playing a lot with men which took her game to heights that brought her close to full international honours.
“Everything related to explosion, speed and jumping, [which] I was good at,” Alcaraz explained from Corrientes, where she now resides, some 500 kilometres from her home town and 1,200km from Buenos Aires.
“I was even offered [the chance] to move to Brazil to play football, but I was young and my parents didn’t let me go.”
During her studies to be a PE teacher rugby was not on the curriculum for women, who were instead taught netball.
Around that time, she was spotted by the Asociación del Fútbol Argentino (Argentine Football Association) and brought to Buenos Aires to be part of a selection process in 2003.
“I was 27 and age played against me as they were in search of younger players,” she recalled.
She did represent Argentina in the 2008 AMF Futsal Women’s World Cup in Spain, where they finished in fifth place.
“Singing the national anthem was a great moment, fulfilling the dream of representing my country,” Alcaraz said.
Introduction to rugby
Having spent five years working as a PE teacher in her home town, it was in the city of Corrientes, the province’s capital, where Alcaraz was introduced to rugby.
Age had curtailed her football dreams but was suddenly not an issue in the new sport, one she knew nothing about.
“After a year of trying, a professor, Pablo Semhann, convinced me to take up rugby,” Alcaraz explained.
“I was tired of the physical nature of football. Little did I know…”
Alcaraz joined ISEF, the university club. “There was a tournament in Buenos Aires and in two weeks I had a crash course in rugby,” she said.
“I was on the wing and didn’t know how to pass the ball; all I did was kick and chase.”
With a slight understanding of the rules, she discovered a new world, totally different to football.
“It was about sharing, meeting people, making friends,” she said.
Rugby is now my life
After Alcaraz’s second tournament, which were played every three months, she was asked to join a national camp with 40 players. She was then selected for the South American Sevens in Sao Paulo.
For three years, she played both sports. “When I felt that rugby was giving me more, I turned to it 100 per cent,” Alcaraz said.
“We were always aiming for more and life took me towards rugby.”
“Rugby is now my life. The values I learnt from my family, hard work, effort, I saw in the game. Things I had in me which I didn’t find in football.”
So she found her place in the world. “At one stage, I felt I was at home, it fitted my lifestyle and my values.”
Rugby became such a part of her life that she went on to play for Argentina for 11 consecutive years, retiring at the South American Sevens tournament in 2016.
Three years earlier, Alcaraz had assumed responsibility for rugby at her university, tasked with convincing future teachers why they needed to teach the game at their schools.
“When I started playing we only had three clubs and about 50 players; now there are 16 [clubs] with age-grade and children’s rugby,” she said with pride of how the game took off in her area.
As she was preparing for life after rugby as a player, she felt the desperate need to convince others that her passion needed multiplying. So, Alcaraz became a coach.
Soon after, the Unión Argentina de Rugby (UAR) brought her into the fold to mentor younger girls ahead of the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, for which she was a torch bearer around her city.
Thanks to the encouragement and support of many, Alcaraz put her hand up for the World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship.
“I heard about it in 2018; having found out I got a help from World Rugby’s Santiago Ramallo, UAR’s Francisco Rubio and others that helped on my dream of getting more knowledge to be able to help more people through rugby.”
Thanks to the scholarship, she has started post-graduate studies in coach management. “To work better with players, staff, fans,” she said, acknowledging the work she has done with World Rugby, Sudamérica Rugby and the UAR in the last few years.
The responsibility Alcaraz now carries is very clear to her: “I have to make the best of it for my club, my union, my country and the region.
“I have to learn things that will make me better. My motivation is the privilege of having been chosen.”
With the need for more first-time coaches and at higher levels for women’s teams, both in the country and the region, Alcaraz will use the funding to travel to Spain and Ireland with Chilean Soledad Galleguillos, who was also chosen for the scholarship in 2019.
“My other goals are to find all the information I can on how to include rugby in state school PE curricular, how to work with high-performance players, leadership skills.”
In a country where football is religion, it wouldn’t have been easy for Alcaraz to change sports.
“Football is part of my life,” she said. “It gave me a lot of skills that made my transition to rugby easier.
“But it doesn’t have what rugby has, that style of life I am passionate about.”