Preparation for Uruguay's historic defeat of Fiji under the sun at the Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium began the moment the team qualified for Rugby World Cup 2019. Working with their sports psychologist, Juanjo Grande, they had coined the phrase 'shock the world'. And indeed they did.
In team meetings, the phrase 'immovable goal' was decided as a motto for a team desperate to secure their place in a third consecutive, and fifth overall, Rugby World Cup.
“Why that phrase?” asks captain Andrés Vilaseca, heading for a third Rugby World Cup. “So that nothing could take our focus away. When you play high-pressure games, many factors can move you from your main focus.
“And the goal was not to be moved. And it worked. The team was closed within and solid as a fist, convinced of our ‘immovable goal’ which was to qualify.
“We need to find a new phrase,” he says with a huge grin.
With many of the same players from Japan 2019 and a handful from England 2015, coach Esteban Meneses knew that Los Teros had grown from the same qualifying process four years earlier.
As the Estadio Charrúa rose in stature as the home of Uruguayan rugby, and players had the Superliga Americana de Rugby (SLAR) to play professionally, he had the ideal preparation given the current circumstances that the world is living under.
Uruguay was probably the country that best handled the COVID-19 pandemic in the region. And with the inaugural SLAR in 2020 cancelled after only three games, it meant players had to stay as focused as they could on the big task ahead.
Despite all the setbacks they came out stronger, with SLAR 2021 proving to be a great testing ground for both Uruguay and Chile.
In doing so, they developed more players. One of them was Felipe Etcheverry, who was told after the captain’s run that he would have to take Felipe Berchesi’s number 10 jersey as the record points scorer had to urgently return to France for personal matters.
“It was a shock, but I had huge support of staff and players,” said Etcheverry who was penciled in to play at 15. “Felo’s departure united us even more, wanting to play for him. But, I train almost year-round at 10 here at the Estadio Charrúa, so it was easy to fit in.”
When pools were drawn last year, Vilaseca knew he wanted to be in Pool A with France and New Zealand. “I sent our coach a screen capture and told him: ‘we have to go there. No other option.'
“Mono (Meneses) is a dreamer who dreams big and can convince you of the biggest dreams.”
To which Meneses says: “Dreaming of beating France or the All Blacks is crazy and not even the players will believe me, but we can have games such as those against Australia and Wales in Japan. And we must aim for Italy and Namibia (assuming they will take the Africa 1 spot). We are already planning those two games. We have more recovery days than in Japan and this team must have them as goals. We are going to qualify directly for RWC 2027. That is the goal.”
Uruguay will be playing against Romania, Italy A and Italy this November. The matches at the Stadio Plebiscito, in Padova, and at Parma’s Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi will be tests for the match everybody Uruguay has now underlined on their 2023 calendar: 17:45 local time, Wednesday, 20 September, Stade de Nice – Italy v Uruguay.
“Fortunately, for RWC 2023 I will be at home in France,” said scrum-half Santiago Arata, who scored a try in Kamaishi two years ago, and currently plays for Castres Olympique.
Having lost 19-16 in the rare air of Denver’s altitude, the return game had Los Teros giving one of their best performances, winning 34-16 to the delight of the home fans – allowed to go to the stadium to watch their national team for the first time since 2019.
“It wasn’t an easy series. We had to work very hard all the way to the end,” added Arata. “USA battled hard until the final minute but fortunately our defence stood firm. Our discipline and patience came through.”
So hard did USA push to turn around a game that had by then already slipped by, captain Vilaseca acknowledged that “only five minutes before the end, when I realised we were three scores away, I knew the desired Americas 1 place was ours.
“Even though we are still flying high with the achievement, we were not surprised because players, staff and the union are all well aware of the work being done.
“We are delighted and already anxious.”
The best way to control that anxiety will be by finding, as soon as possible, the new motto that will unite the squad and take them to France.