Ex-Pumas skipper shifts focus

Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe will be able to concentrate on his own game after losing the Pumas captaincy, writes FRANKIE DEGES.

It may prove to be a blessing in disguise that new Pumas coach Daniel Hourcade has relieved Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe of the captaincy for this year’s Rugby Championship. The loose forward did not like the decision, but, looking back at his two seasons at the helm, one has the feeling that being able to focus solely on playing will benefit his game.

There was universal approval of Santiago Phelan’s decision to give Fernández Lobbe the Pumas captaincy for the inaugural Rugby Championship in 2012. He had a good rugby brain, was a world-class player, and had played a leadership role for a few years. But he was not as comfortable off the field as he was on it.

The Rugby Championship is not an easy tournament, and the physical and mental strain was huge for an Argentinian side that was being asked to front up for six consecutive games against the three best teams in the world. Fernández Lobbe never failed to deliver his best on the field, but the pressure affected him and he didn’t seem to be enjoying life under the captaincy spotlight.

When Hourcade took over from Phelan last November, Fernández Lobbe was unavailable and Juan Manuel Leguizamón became caretaker captain. After that tour it was decided a change in leadership was needed, so when Los Pumas take the field at Loftus Versfeld to open the third Rugby Championship, the team will be led by hooker Agustín Creevy.

The youngest of three brothers to have represented Argentina in rugby – Ignacio (65 Test caps between 1996 and 2007) and Nicolás (former Argentina Sevens player and coach) – Juan Martín, in his own words, was not good enough as an age-group player. But he has more than made up for his lack of early success.

After a stint with the Argentina Sevens team, he made his Test debut in 2004 but it wasn’t until November 2005 that he become a regular starter.

In 2006, Fernández Lobbe joined Sale only after finishing his engineering degree. He did not pursue professional rugby until he had taken care of his real passion and future profession. In that environment, his rugby took off, and having won the Premiership in his first season, his leadership qualities were acknowledged when he was named captain in what was his last season at the club. 

Fernández Lobbe was a key player in Argentina’s bronze-medal run at the 2007 World Cup and having played every minute of the tournament, he was the most competitive in the semi-final loss against the Springboks in Paris. While spoken of as a probable captain after the retirement of Agustín Pichot, the job ended up going to Felipe Contepomi.

Since leaving the cold and wet north of England for the beautiful Cote d’Azur in 2009, Fernández Lobbe has been instrumental in Toulon’s success, starting in the four finals the club has played in the past two seasons.

At 32, his legs may not be as fresh as they used to be, but the way he reads the game makes him a crucial player for club and country. While not the strongest of ball-carriers, he seems to have the uncanny ability to know when to pass and when not to. He does not vary his game much when playing for Argentina as he is always keen to defend.

A series of injuries has prevented Fernández Lobbe from earning more than 56 Test caps. The character of the guy is such that when injured in the third of five games at the 2011 World Cup, he asked to stay with the team. ‘I will help carry bags if that is what you need,’ he said. His torn cruciate ligaments came second to Los Pumas.

History should not judge Fernández Lobbe as a failed captain as he was not aware that the ability to run things off the field was part of the job description. On the field, he was always among the best and he will continue to be.

When he retires, probably after next year’s World Cup, he will go down as one of the greatest Pumas.

– This article first appeared in the August 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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