Pablo Matera has the potential to become a legendary loose forward for the Pumas, writes FRANKIE DEGES.
The age-grade production line in Argentinian rugby has proven to be successful over the years. So much so that the names of those who did not play for Los Pumitas, rather than those who did, raise eyebrows.
Two players come to mind. Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, no longer available for Pumas selection, was, in his own words, not good enough at that age, and former Pumas captain Agustín Pichot missed out on the global tournament, only earning his Pumita colours for the less-important South American Championship in 1993.
The early identification and promotion of players is important in Argentinian rugby. Since the inception of the World Rugby U20 Championship in 2008, 54 players have graduated to the Test team, including Pablo Matera.
Matera first came to South Africa to play for Los Pumitas in the U20 Championship in 2012. The huge flanker was quick to make headlines, grabbing an opportunistic try in the rain against Australia. Argentina won that match and went on to beat France and Scotland before losing to eventual winners South Africa in the semi-finals.
‘When I first came into the system, I loved playing rugby, but also loved skiing and playing football with my mates, who were not into rugby,’ he says.
Matera would play in an amateur football league on Saturdays and age-group rugby on Sundays. However, being promoted to his club’s 1st XV meant rugby on Saturdays and adios to fútbol. Matera was not too happy about abandoning his mates and football, but by then he had been bitten by the rugby bug and desperately wanted to make it to the 2015 World Cup.
‘I was first selected for the U19 side in 2011, a few days after the World Cup in New Zealand, and I set myself the goal of going to England four years later,’ he recalls.
But there was a lot of rugby to be played before that. The U20 Championship in 2012 was only a stepping stone, as was the tournament in France a year later, where he would play alongside future Pumas in Tomás Lavanini, Guido Petti, Facundo Isa and Tomás Lezana.
In between those U20 tournaments Matera received his first Test caps for an Argentinan team, which included no senior players, against Brazil, Chile and Uruguay in the South American Championship. His raw talent, strength, stamina and personality earned him a recall to the Pumas squad after the U20 Championship in 2013 and a plane trip to a training camp in the US.
Matera’s first appearance for the Pumas against a major Test nation came at Soccer City, with his side suffering a 73-13 defeat to the Springboks. It was difficult to shine for a team in such disarray, but he did show glimpses of what he would bring in future.
Matera was accused of eye-gouging Francois Louw in the return game in Mendoza, which the Pumas lost 22-17, but was found not guilty and went on to play all five of his side’s matches in his first Rugby Championship campaign.
‘I had to pinch myself,’ he says. ‘Being in a lineout next to Richie McCaw, playing against the Wallabies and the Springboks … it was incredible.’
Matera then signed for Leicester, but didn’t make much impact for them in the 2013-14 season and returned home to focus on his Test career.
After playing in all of the Pumas’ matches in 2013, he suffered a setback in 2014 when, against the Springboks in Salta, he dislocated a shoulder after chasing a ball in an attempt to prevent a try. But when he returned, he was fitter and stronger.
The 2015 World Cup provided the flanker with a stage on which to showcase his talents. He ran strongly with ball in hand, his defence was superb and apart from a yellow card against the All Blacks, he was well behaved.
‘I would have loved for my father to see me play at the World Cup,’ says Matera, who has a tattoo of his mentor’s signature. His father died when he was 12 and had not yet started to shine in rugby. It’s hard to imagine a Pumas XV today without Matera, who recently turned 23. Fellow loose forward Facundo Isa is the same age, while Tomás Lezana, who came painstakingly close to World Cup selection last year, is just 22.
‘Pablo provides us with a first impact,’ says Pumas coach Daniel Hourcade. ‘He loves running straight into whatever is in his way, which generates the forward momentum that allowed us to play the open style we had planned for the World Cup.
‘We have a lot of talent in the back row and the three of them combine well. Modern rugby is focused on the breakdown, and with Matera, Isa and Tomás, we are in a position to compete with the best in the world.’
– This article first appeared in the August 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine