The Uruguayan Teritos made their international debut with a 36-9 defeat of Brazil on July 17, 1972. Initially, their international U19 competition was based in South America, but in 1992 the team made their first trip to Europe and the FIRA Championship.
From the team that played in Madrid, Diego Lamelas, Juan Carlos Bado, Diego Aguirre, Martín Mendaro and Guillermo Storace would play in Rugby World Cup 1999 and 2003, going from youth internationals to full test players.
Los Teros painfully missed out on RWC 2007 in France. But when World Rugby launched the U20 Trophy in Chile, unbeknown to them, a new era of Uruguayan rugby was about to launch.
There is never a single moment when such a lofty road starts, but those Teritos of 2008 would be the core of the team that would qualify for Rugby World Cup 2015 and four years later beat Fiji in Kamaishi, shocking the oval world.
New beginnings for age-grade rugby
With the creation of the U20 Trophy, the U20s teams were now drawn into two tournaments – a 16-team Championship, and an eight-team Trophy, drawn from each regional association.
Uruguay flew to Santiago coached by former Terito and two-time RWC appearance makers Mendaro and Bruno Grunwald.
“You could well say it was the start of something,” said Juan Gaminara, Uruguayan captain in RWC 2019 and a Terito in the inaugural World Rugby U20 Trophy in 2008.
Names such as Alejandro Nieto, Rodrigo Espiga, Diego Magno, Juan Diego Ormaechea, Miguel Horta, Germán Albanell, Matías Benítez, Francisco Vecino, Juan De Freitas, Jerónimo Etcheverry, Santiago Gibernau, Tomás Jolivet and Leandro Leivas would be involved either in RWC 2015, RWC 2019 or in the qualifying processes.
“That year we prepared in a very professional way, a very hard preparation,” recalls Gaminara. During the process to get to Chile, players had to raise funds to support the Uruguayan Rugby Union.
His long-time teammate Alejandro Nieto, remembers that “to get to Chile, players had to raise funds”. Those were the days.
A tighthead prop in those days he came close to not travelling. “I wasn’t serious about my rugby back then; I thank the coached that gave me another opportunity, although I was not in the starting XV”. This taught Nieto a valuable lesson and renewed his passion for the game. In a 71-test career, he became a key Tero cog, with Gaminara, in the back-row in the last decade.
The eight competing teams were divided into two groups of four, in which the big candidates were Romania and Georgia.
Having beaten Korea 67-8 and Jamaica 82-0, the game against the Georgian was a semifinal of sorts.
“It was very tough and our defense won the game. In the final minutes we defended with all our hearts and ‘Colo’ Albanell stopped what seemed a certain try with an unforgettable tackle,” remembers Gaminara.
“That team had Victor Kolelishvili, who later played in RWC 2011 and 2015," Nieto adds. "In those final lineouts close to our line he was in tears of frustration because they couldn’t break us”. The eventual 20-16 win proceeded a huge celebration.
Chile had also surprised all by beating the fancied Romanians 14-3 to reach the final, which they would play at home – a hostile environment for the young Uruguayans.
Lead by number eight Matías Fonseca (in the photo, with a beard standing to the left of Gaminara), who should have played more international rugby but moved out of Montevideo to work in farming, was another game that showcased the metal of this team.
Diego Magno, South America’s most capped international, scored Los Teritos’ first try and with an Albanell penalty, they went to the break leading 8-7.
The hunger shown by the visitors came through in the second half; on the hour mark, Albanell added a drop-goal, Jerónimo Etcheverry a penalty, and in the final minutes Albanell found the smallest of gaps to break the Chilean defense to score in the left corner, sealing the win.
“In this tournament, we started doing video-analysis; to look after us we had two trainers who were very important,” explains Gaminara about what was, in fact, the start of high performance in this new era of Uruguayan rugby.
Coaches also played their part in making sure players were ready. “Team talks were a rollercoaster of emotions,” recalls Nieto. “Mendaro was pure passion and Bruno was calm and collected!”
“Both taught me what it meant to be a rugby player,” he adds.
The biggest lessons for this group of youngsters were off the field. One night during the final week of the tournament, a team barbecue had the Chilean coaches as guests.
“Every time I come across them, we have a great rapport. Same with some of the players in that Chilean team,” adds Gaminara, who recognizes that winning the Trophy “didn’t make us world champions as there was a top division playing in Wales. We joined them a year later. What made this win important was that it bore on us that hard work paid off.”
A few weeks later, Diego Magno was rushed to make his test debut against Russia in the Nations Cup in Romania; a handful travelled to Japan in 2009 for the Championship and soon after, they started filtering into the full national team. Most of them left a mark with Los Teros.
“Many different things changed in Uruguayan rugby for it to grow and be where it is today; that first step for many of us in Chile was certainly important,” closes Gaminara.