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North American doubleheader brings back happy memories for Santiago Gómez Cora
Three of the four titles won by Los Pumas Sevens in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series have been in North America. Head coach Santiago Gómez Cora was involved in all three victories and is hoping this weekend and next, in Los Angeles and Vancouver, that his team can create more happy memories.
Historically trips to North America have seen Los Pumas Sevens perform at their best.
Last month's Cup final win in Hamilton was their fourth title in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series but their first outside of the USA and Canada, where the next two rounds of the competition will be held.
Over this weekend and next, the best sevens teams on the planet will contest the Los Angeles Sevens and Vancouver Sevens titles, and both are destinations that Los Pumas have fond memories of.
Argentina's first Series success came in LA in 2004, the next title was won in San Diego in 2009 and then, in 2022, they walked away wth the gold medal in Vancouver.
A common thread ties the three wins together: Santiago Gómez Cora.
Gómez Cora was Argentina's prolific try-scoring wing in the 2004 and 2009 title successes and then led them to victory as coach last year.
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Los Angeles 2004
Although this weekend's tournament is being played at the same venue as the one used in 2004, back then it was called the Home Depot Center, not the Dignity Health Sports Park.
After defeating Chile 31-10, Kenya 19-17 and Fiji by a resounding 33-5, Argentina made it through to the Cup quarter-finals.
France fell 17-0 the next day and Samoa were beaten 17-12 in a semi-final that went to sudden death. Gómez Cora suffered a head injury and had to watch the final from the bench.
The highly celebrated 21-12 victory against the All Blacks was a seminal moment as it brought a hugely talented group their first Series tournament win.
Captained by Francisco Leonelli, Argentina boasted players of the stature of brothers Pablo and Santiago Gómez Cora and future Rugby World Cup players Juan Fernández Lobbe and Federico Martin Aramburu. Hernán Rouco Oliva and former captain Pedro Baraldi coached the team.
“Los Ángeles 2004 was understanding that we could win at that level and believing in ourselves," recalled Gómez Cora.
"We had been playing well until then, but we did not imagine this possibility because we had never won a tournament."
“Beyond playing well, you need a lot of variables to go right and I think that winning in Los Angeles gave us a lot of confidence for the future of Los Pumas Sevens.
"The first one is always unique and as a player winning that tournament was spectacular. Personally, it was very gratifying because I had been in the team for four years and we always longed to play in the finals.
"It was the beginning of a lot of good things.”
San Diego 2009
Played on a baseball field adapted especially for the occasion, Los Pumas Sevens went to San Diego and won despite finishing second in their pool.
Samoa were beaten 21-5 in the quarter-finals before the host nation fell 19-14 in the semis.
Ben Gollings' England, one of the strognest teams of that era, took the lead in the final but three tries through Gómez Cora and future Rugby World Cup 2011 players, Lucas González Amorosino and Martín Rodríguez Gurruchaga turned things around.
A few weeks later, this team lost the Rugby World Cup Sevens final in Dubai.
“As a player, this one I valued the most, because I was also the captain. We wanted to give the team an identity, not rotating so many players from tournament to tournament and keeping the coach for longer periods," said Gómez Cora.
“We had asked for more facilities and for the right environment to help us prepare better.
"I remember that we all stayed together, training that summer, and when things like this happen, teams come through and San Diego 2009 was the best thing that happened to me, even more than Los Angeles in 2004.
“It is one of the things I am most proud of in my life.”
Thirteen years pased by before Los Pumas Sevens clained their next Series title but when it happened, it was worth the wait and was received with a lot of joy.
Having transitioned from playing to coaching, Gómez Cora was the leader of a team that had already generated big headlines by winning the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics 15 months earlier.
The opening game was a draw 12-12 with France and that was followed by wins against Scotland 24-5 and Ireland 26-19 to qualify for the quarter-finals.
The 40-17 victory against England showcased a team that on an upward trajectory, with an unyielding defence, a strong and powerful attack and the speed of Marcos Moneta, at the time World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year, as a try-scoring machine.
Fiji, with a strong team, was well beaten 29-10.
"Vancouver 2022 is another paragraph, separate from what it was like being a player," said Gómez Cora.
"For us, it was confirmation that what we had done in the Olympic Games had not been something isolated, but that we were a sustainable, competitive unit put together over time where, no matter who we played, we'd continue to be competitive.
"We didn't want people to think that the we had been lucky in the Games."
“We wanted to show that the team had really grown, that we could win or lose, but that we were competitive and that is what we have been showing in these last three years, being able to play competitively against everyone”
“We are a difficult team for everyone and that is what makes us most proud. Obviously coming out as champions, having a title, is spectacular, but it gives us great pleasure to know that with sacrifice and hard work we can make noise in all the tournaments.”
Photo: Frankie Deges