Time brings experience, which can mean many different things.
After 23 almost consecutive seasons travelling the world, Santiago Gómez Cora, the Argentina Sevens coach, has a certain travel routine that he has adapted and improved over the years.
With 63 tournaments as a player and 80 as a coach in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, two Olympic Games, Rugby World Cup Sevens, South American Sevens and Pan American Games, the man who was born as a rugby player at Lomas Athletic in Argentina has certainly gained miles and experience.
When he landed in Hong Kong last Saturday, after a long journey that included stops in Rio de Janeiro, Dubai and Bangkok, he arrived at his room and rearranged it as he usually does in every hotel.
Inevitable on trips are his reading glasses, flip flops, speaker to listen to music by Stone Temple Pilots, the Rolling Stones, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Argentine band Las Pelotas, his computer, his notebook and the book he chooses for each trip.
“I force myself to read one book per tour,” says Gómez Cora, who usually has a stack of books to choose from before travelling.
It can be a novel or a neuroscience book. Among his favourites are 'The Power of Words' by Mariano Sigman, 'Why Do We Sleep?' by Matthew Walker, and ‘Innovations', by Andrés Oppenheimer.
“I'm old school; the book must be made of paper and if I like what I read I underline it,” he says, as if he is a student.
“Sometimes, I read a novel that allows me to let my head fly; I'm not a fan of autobiographies, although I do like some about musicians,” he says and clarifies: “If I don't like a book, I'll leave it.”
Pragmatic and passionate about neuroscience, he travelled to Hong Kong and Singapore with a book from Harvard University: 'Emotional Intelligence: Purpose, Sense and Passion', that will certainly return heavily underlined.
What happens on tour…
"We suggest to players that they study, a degree, English, something," he explains about the experiences he seeks to develop among his team. “And I would say that half read books on trips.”
Unlike his time as a player, today's players are more measured. “Before players would go shopping, now they go to interesting places that are worth the time. Or they go out for coffee.”
The truth is there are few moments of recreation, which is why they take advantage of them.
Gómez Cora in his almost 10 years as a national player would only leave the hotel to train or to play in tournaments. That changed over time. “Now I go running through the cities; that's how I do my tourism,” he says.
Another passion that he has gathered over the years is drinking coffee.
“Before travelling, I connect with baristas in each city to choose where to go. Sometimes I look for a specific type of coffee and will travel within a city to find it," Gómez Cora reveals.
"It's something I try to do on my own just to clear my head. Coffee is very nice because it helps bring people together.”
In fact, he usually picks his squads by combining coffee and jogging. "Before finalising a squad, I go for a run, I have a coffee and then name it."
For someone who was not passionate about travelling, he knew how to find his balance. By his own account, Gómez Cora, Los Pumas Sevens' all-time try-scorer, who is still in the overall top five, has visited Hong Kong “some 20, 21 times”.
“The only time I came as a tourist was for the 2013 tournament, with HSBC. Having seen the madness that is the North Stand, I wanted to see the tournament from there,” he says.
“When I stop coaching I would like to go to tournaments and sit for 12 hours watching sevens.”
What is it that attracts him to sevens?
“How changeable it is, to me it is the most dynamic sport. You have a 14-minute universe where there are different playing styles,” he adds.
“Today’s world is the dynamics of everything already, it is now or I get bored. Sevens already had that. On the same day, you can see different genres, nationalities, types of games and players.”
It is in talking to the experienced former winger that you understand why Argentina are where they are today: second in the Series, dreaming of qualifying directly for the Olympic Games and having won three tournaments in less than a calendar year.
Thinking of the future
The arrival in Asia comes with enormous expectations, especially due to the standard of a team that has kept its squad almost the same – there were no changes in the tours of Oceania and North America and the two changes for Asia are due to the recovery of injured players.
Sudamerica creciendo día a día. Uruguay y su gran victoria ante Sudáfrica, Chile haciendo su debut, jugando de igual a igual y Panchito (ref) haciendo cuartos y semi. Felicitaciones @sudamericarugby @Teros7s @Condores_rugby @pinopuca @unionargentina— Santi Gomez Cora (@santygc) February 27, 2023
Having played two finals in a row with all players fit and healthy “is positive, it speaks about the work done. In Vancouver, Gastón Revol had a stiff back, and Santiago Vera Feld had HIA”.
Those injuries offered opportunities to the newer players. "Joaquín Pellandini was six months learning from Revol and when his time came, he was ready," explains Gómez Cora about one of the standout players in Vancouver’s tournament-winning team last month.
“Those with more experience lead and those who play less work on the fine details, an advantage that we did not have,” he adds.
“We have 18 central players and there is a larger group working already ahead of a natural renewal two years from now. We divide them by short, medium and long-term prospects.
"We give them tools so that when it's their turn to play they can be competitive,” he explains, defending a reality: players need time to develop and prepare.
Keep on fighting
Los Pumas Sevens are in a place they haven't been before, yet it is more than deserved.
“It is very hard to arrive, even harder to stay. We work to improve our game system, do things to be better every day with something tangible: improving the game plan, some achievement in the gym, learning a new word.”
Then there is the intangible that Gómez Cora defines as “the connection on the field”.
“We don't talk about goals; we just analyse game actions and focus on that. We are thinking about improving day by day and Canada, our first opponent in Hong Kong,” he says.
Although the objective discussed with the squad is to qualify for Paris 2024, directly or through the regional pathway, “we started the season convinced that we could grow. They cost us all the games. We do not calculate, we do not speculate.”
“If we improve, surely we will have obtained possession and the possibility of making more tries. The consequence of the work is to win matches, tournaments, qualify,” Gómez Cora says,
The explanation for recent successes is in a process of many years of work, of going through mistakes. “From defeats you learn a lot; I think it is a place that a team must go through to consolidate what we call the 'learning curve',” he adds.
"My favourite economics tool, among many that we use, is 'value chain', how each one contributes to the team.
“Last year, we learned a lot from defeats which helped us value the wins; we understood that we could do it.”
In this sense, Tokyo 2020 – played in 2021 – served to convince the players of their potential. “That gives you more chance to believe.”
That is why Gómez Cora does not talk about lucky charms. “I speak of habits,” he says.
“To always do the same. Even in the finals we kept everything the same: the same talk, the same goals, the same schedules.”
The success of Los Pumas Sevens endorses the path travelled.