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Las Tucanes working towards "respect" ahead of FQT decider with Scotland
Eighty minutes away from an unexpected last chance at a spot in Rugby World Cup 2021, Colombia continue to defy the odds as they prepare to tackle Scotland on Friday.
The Rio 2016 Olympic Games. The Youth Olympic Games in 2018. A spot in the Rugby World Cup 2021 Final Qualification Tournament, beating Brazil and Kenya to get there. Qualification for Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022. And now, last weekend's 18-10 win against higher ranked Kazakhstan in the semi-final of the Final Qualification Tournament.
None of these historic, groundbreaking moments pitted the Colombian Tucanes as the favourites to win. And yet, the South American country has worked tirelessly, defying the odds and emerging victorious at every turn.
Fifteens rugby is fast developing in the region and the Colombians have taken massive strides. Now, all that stands between them and a spot in Rugby World Cup 2021's Pool A - alongside New Zealand, Australia and Wales - is the vastly more experienced Scotland.
“We want them to respect us,” says 21-year old captain Leidy Soto, part of World Rugby’s 'Unstoppables' campaign and an integral part of each of the milestones mentioned above bar the Olympic Games, which took place before she started playing rugby.
Powering into week two of the #RWC2021 Final Qualification Tournament 💪@fecorugby 🇨🇴 pic.twitter.com/1y1wmYegVy— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) February 22, 2022
An unstoppable force as a hard-tackling centre, Soto (pictured left in main image) is enjoying the sights of Dubai. “I get to see everything from the bus, as we are in a bubble, going from the hotel to training and then back. It's OK, we came here to do a job.
“Hopefully, we can go out and see a bit of the city on Saturday.”
By then, Scotland will have given them their biggest challenge yet.
The challenge ahead
“It is small things in a game that give you insight into how it's going but after the first few minutes, I knew we’d win,” she says of their game against the Asian representatives Kazakhstan.
“Then around the 20th minute, when there was a stoppage, I looked to my number 10, Camila Lopera, and we had seen the same thing: they were breathing hard, all their energy consumed early in the game.”
Colombia scored two tries and defended bravely throughout the game, even more so after the 15th minute when number eight Maribel Mestra was sent-off for a dangerous charge.
“We knew we would have to work even harder,” admits Soto, acknowledging her team did not cave and instead worked harder, something they are accustomed to.
Having entered a sanitary bubble a couple of weeks ahead of their trips to Madrid and Dubai, coach Raúl Vesga and four players were unable to travel having contracted COVID-19.
A rugby family on and off the pitch
Lissette Martínez took over a team that knows her well and has become a family.
Soto has two team-mates from the Youth Olympics in Valentina Tapias and Laura Mejia, and even plays alongside older sister Juliana, also on the team.
“Having friends in the team is great; having a sister is incredible. My mother gets very emotional when we play,” she says and smiles thinking of the celebrations in Medellín.
The Sotos are not a rugby family. Few are in a country with an oval ball history that only stretches to the early '90s, when founding father Hans Rausch used the signed ball given to him by his varsity team-mates in the USA for the first ever rugby session in Medellín. Slowly and steadily, the game has continued to grow ever since.
“My older brother played for his university and, drawn by what we saw, Juliana and I started rugby the same day five years ago,” says the Gatos player, adding that her younger brother, at 17, is also a rugby player.
Whilst her parents have never been out of the country, she’s been to “10 countries on a quick count”.
“Thanks to rugby I’ve travelled, met interesting people in great places and grown as a person. Being an Unstoppable was also big in my formation and I am thankful."
Taking over the reigns
Needing to find a new captain after the retirement of Nicole Acevedo, the young Soto was the ideal option, even ahead of former captain Alejandra Betancur and fellow Olympian Camila Lopera, both her lieutenants and mentors.
The game has given Leidy a lot and she repays in kind every time she takes to the field, which will be evident to a wider audience against Scotland.
“Only on Monday did we start to look at Scotland, but we know they are more experienced and we know what they will bring to the game.
“We have prepared very well and are planning on having a good performance."
In the past, people have taken lightly the challenge posed by the Tucanes lightly.
“We want Scotland to respect us and we have to earn that respect. Our defence will be a key element of our game and we have proven in the past that our heart has taken us places”.
Delighted that South America will have a team in Rugby World Cup 2025, when she will still be in her prime, she still sees herself in New Zealand later next year.
Eighty minutes separate Soto and her visit to the Land of the Long White Cloud.