There are two images that come to mind when thinking of Diego Ormaechea, the only Uruguayan currently in the World Rugby Hall of Fame.
Inducted during the World Rugby Awards in Tokyo last November, the night after South Africa’s unforgettable victory in the Rugby World Cup 2019 final, Ormaechea’s career is more than those two moments, yet they are part of who he is, his undying passion and love for the game.
The first: being carried on the shoulders of his team-mates at the end of the first of four Rugby World Cups Uruguay has played in, in his last game in 1999.
The second, the scenes of joy from the coach’s box with his team’s third try, securing the win against Georgia, four years later.
Talk of a Uruguayan rugby personality and you can’t look far beyond Ormaechea who, it seems, will forever be the oldest to ever play in a Rugby World Cup
That record that will stand the test of times came in 1999. Ormaechea scored his country’s first try in a Rugby World Cup, as a 40-year-old number eight, at the back of a scrum that pushed Spain all the way to the in-goal. To be there, he needed to be at his best.
“Before the road that took us there, an Argentine friend, former Puma coach Emilio Perasso, told us that we had to enjoy it,” recalls Ormaechea. “That changed the way we faced what was coming.”
Uruguay had to beat Portugal and Morocco to qualify for their first Rugby World Cup.
“I had been ready to hang my boots a couple of times, but the new generations at club and country level kept me going,” he explains.
Even then, Ormaechea was taking it a game at a time. “I had never really thought of going to the World Cup and at dinner after qualifying, Morocco’s coach Daniel Dubroca, himself a former RWC finalist with France, was telling me that I had to go to RWC 1999.”
Strong Rugby World Cup connection
Fortunately, he heeded that advice.
The Ormaechea name has been linked to the four Rugby World Cup campaigns of Uruguay, first with Diego and in the last two through sons Agustín and Juan Diego.
Diego was first capped on 9 October, 1979 against Paraguay. His much-lauded exit was 20 years and six days later against South Africa. In all those years, he was seldom absent from his country’s first XV.
His long and eventful career and what came next as coach, would earn him his deserved place in the World Rugby Hall of Fame.
Stories and memories of a life in rugby are too many. “Being the oldest in a World Cup is simply an anecdote,” he says, smiling.
“I was always very professional in how I prepared; you are the first to know if you shouldn’t be there. We had a very good preparation, so much that we were 0-0 for 30 minutes against the Springboks,” he recalls with pride.
That game was his last for Uruguay, being taken off the field shoulder high by his respectful team-mates, yet he continued to play until 2001 with his beloved Carrasco Polo Club. Then at the end of that year, he was asked to coach his country in a tour of Wales.
Next step was the epic qualifying to Australia 2003.
“That team had been formed in ‘99, but it had a more physical approach,” he recalls. Having lost their first three qualifying games on the road, the next three wins in Montevideo put them in the Rugby World Cup.
“To celebrate at home was great,” he says, remembering those three consecutive Saturdays in 2002 in which Uruguay showed their “Charrúa passion.”
Georgia: the goal
That tournament in Australia showed the differences between amateur and professional rugby. When Uruguay played against a team in their category, they took a much-celebrated win against Georgia.
“It was a great night,” he says when his celebration over the team's third try is brought up.
“We had always put Georgia as the goal and we managed to reach it.”
Although he quit as coach upon returning, he was always a sounding board in the game in his country.
In England 2015, Ormeachea had the pleasure to be followed by his son Agustín. A couple of days earlier, he had been one of 20 former national greats to be paraded in the Opening Ceremony.
Four years later, Agustín was joined by older brother Juan Diego at Japan 2019. Diego was in Kamaishi, celebrating Los Teros’ historic win against Fiji.
“The role of the father is to support from a distance,” he says, proudly. “I don’t get nervous when they play; as a player, you can unload energy. As a coach is where you suffer the most.”
He returned to Japan a few weeks later to be inducted to the World Rugby Hall of Fame.
“I feel this honour as one given to Uruguayan rugby as a whole;” he said humbly. “I don’t see it as recognition of my career but to the game in my country.”