The assistance of social media allowed sevens icon and Los Pumas Sevens coach Santiago Gómez Cora to identify Lautaro Bazán Vélez and Felipe del Mestre as those who showered him with isotonic drink after his team had won the HSBC Canada Sevens recently.

The culprits have been identified and their spot on the Argentina team hangs in the balance, jokes their coach.

“They said they had seen it done so many times on television,” laughs Gómez Cora, after a long-awaited win in a circuit he has been involved in as a player and now coach for over two decades.

“With the adrenaline rushing, I was wet for about three hours before I could shower; I knew that I would get ill.”

That illness came in the form of angina. 

“It hurt a lot whenever I swallowed, my body ached and I had a high fever,” he tells World Rugby about his, understandable, unavailability to speak last week.

“If that is what winning a tournament takes, I’m happy to continue getting wet!” he smiles.

Santi Gómez Cora, who first played in the HSBC Sevens Series in 2001, was in the team that won in Los Angeles in 2004 and captained the team that won in San Diego in 2009.

“Such moments are like your children - how can you choose which you love the most?” he answers when asked about his favourite moment.

“The first one was the first one, in 2009 I was captain and this time around I had other responsibilities.”

From player to coach

A couple of years after retiring as the Series’ top try-scorer, with 230, he was back in the mix, first as an apprentice coach of Argentina’s women and then from 2013 leading a sevens programme that has steadily grown since.

No longer used as a rite of passage on the path to the Pumas’ 15s team, the programme continues to produce quality players and the core of the team stays together much longer than in previous eras, like when Gómez Cora was part of the team with his older brother Pablo and others that went on to become full internationals.

“Things do not happen by chance,” adds Santi, as everybody knows him.

“Some three years ago we changed structures quite a bit. You have to be patient, trust a lot and do the hard work.

“Many are happy with the fact that the Argentine Rugby Union was patient with our programme.”

The hard work paying off

Gómez Cora managed the tricky schedule and used his professional nous to get everything done. Winning in Vancouver, and the way his side did it, is proof of this.

“It is like an exam you’re unprepared for but might still pass if you’re lucky. You are happy you passed but take no pride.

“This time we knew we did everything to pass the exam, worked on it from end to end, grew from tournament to tournament, and just put in the hours. 

“Every day we go out to win and we prepare for that, but it’s not easy and it's good when you come through at the end of that process.”

When sevens made its entrance in the Rio Olympics, Argentina lost against Great Britain in the quarter-finals, with Gastón Revol missing the kind of penalty goal he can, and does, convert with his eyes closed.

“Up until then, everything was about winning,” explains Gómez Cora. “In Rio I was frustrated with the loss, I was very sad, but right away we had to go out and play again. All those are lessons.”

Back in 2016, the team had come to the point of needing a renewal. Revol, entering his thirties, had to fight hard to keep his place.

“Gastón is still on the team for what he contributes on the field as he is one of the most effective players in the circuit when it comes to using the foot,” Gómez Cora says. 

“Off the field he knows how to carry the team's legacy, he shares the team's culture. He is the soul and spirit of the team.

“A team needs everything – level heads, mental strength, charismatic leaders, space to enjoy, and commitment.”

He adds: “The team is based on these elements: level heads, mental fortitude, resilience. The mental strength that comes from this has allowed us to bounce back in several games we were losing; we trust ourselves.”

As an example, with Revol sent off and the team down to five players, Los Pumas sevens still managed to defeat the Blitzboks in Tokyo last year and eventually secure silver at the Olympic Games.

What it takes

“We need people with passion, work ethic and conviction. With these three factors you can win, without them you cannot.”

Argentina has grown their game-plan. A year ago, they would score a try every nine phases – this ranked them highly for possession but ninth in tries scored. 

Now, the team has a far better strike rate, an average of two rucks per try. The team now knows how, where and when to break. 

“It happens that teams are very good and it doesn’t always go your way,” Gómez Cora says. “Against Australia in the semis, we couldn't find a way around them; they had beaten us in Spain and Singapore, so in Vancouver we had to work hard on it. 

“The boys have a variety of attack and defence tools that now come naturally to them in the heat of the battle, when pulses are very high.”

Gómez Cora likens sevens to chess as players have many options they need to analyse and handle. They have to turn defence into attack and all must possess the ability to perform different actions.

Take World Rugby Men’s Sevens Player of the Year 2021 in association with HSBC Marcos Moneta. “His first try in the semi-final saw him first defend, then turn over possession, open the ball quickly and then score.

“Individuality is welcomed but we do not believe in having heroes on the team because they do not help build a team over time. They do however help you advance to better conditions or give you a boost in a game, such as a try that comes faster than expected. We are conscious of this.”

Analyse Moneta and you’ll see how he possesses more than a try-scoring instinct second to none.

With Leo Gravano assisting him for the past nine years, the win in Vancouver is, says Gómez Cora, thanks to an army of people that help in many different ways. 

“It is much more than one person,” he says, recognising that Gravano has provided excellent support as an assistant over the years.

As celebrated as the bronze Olympic medal was, winning on the circuit has a different meaning. “The Olympics are special, but the circuit is where I grew, where I played, where I coach.”

The memory that will stay the longest is when the team arrived back in Buenos Aires. Family members were there to pick up loved ones; as the team walked through the gates, non-travelling squad members were there to surprise them.

And, his son Milo also skipped school to pick up his dad. “It was incredible. I couldn’t stop crying.”

A measure of the man Gómez Cora is, came at the airport when he went to injured captain Santiago Alvarez Fourcade and put the medal around his neck.

Gestures like this make him one of the many stars of an HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series that continues to capture the imagination of so many.

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