Juan Manuel Leguizamon: Gladiator in exile living life to the maximum

The Argentina No 8 Juan Manuel Leguizamon has conquered the unforgiving Premiership arena this year to earn the adoration of London Irish's loyal followers
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"I do not recognise all the English players, but I know Dallaglio to be a big name," he said this week. "He has played many times for his country; he is very famous here. But when I stand against him, I forget this and go forward. This is what I do in every game. If I have to hit Dallaglio, it's OK. If he hits me, that's good too. This is rugby."

When Leguizamon uses the word "hit", he means with the body rather than the fist. There was no obvious sign of pugilistic disagreement when he took on Dallaglio at the Causeway Stadium, though the three-times Lions tourist must have been sorely tempted to deliver a bunch of fives in an effort to clip the South American's wings. On the other hand, it would have been a thoroughly bad idea. As Leguizamon's opponents tend to finish a distant second on the bumps-and-bruises front at the best of times, heaven alone knows what might happen if someone annoyed him. Perhaps Martin Corry, the current England captain and No 8, will shed some light on the issue when Irish take on Leicester in tomorrow's Premiership semi-final at Welford Road.

Brian Smith, the director of rugby at Irish, believes Leguizamon has it in him to be the best No 8 in the world. You can see his point. This is not a golden age, positionally speaking. The All Blacks have an effective practitioner in Rodney So'oialo, but he is no Wayne Shelford, let alone a Murray Mexted. In Australia, the back-row strengths are on the sides, not in the middle. The French are in a quandary - dear old Thomas Lièvremont cannot be described as a spring chicken - while the most potent of the Celts are either perpetually injured, like Ryan Jones and Simon Taylor, or playing out of position, like Denis Leamy. And England? Dallaglio is nearly 34, a year or so older than Corry.

All of which makes Leguizamon a hot property, bordering on the molten. "The Spaniard? A breath of fresh air," said Toby Booth, the Exiles' forwards coach, who works most closely with Leguizamon on a daily basis. "Juan is very, very raw - he does everything at 100 mph because it's all he knows - but he has bucketloads of ambition and an infectious enthusiasm about him that is entirely positive. He doesn't do cynicism - it just isn't in him. Instead, he respects people. That makes him a joy to coach. There are things he lacks in the technical sense, but at 22 he has all the time in the world to work on his weaknesses. What he doesn't lack is potential. He really is some player."

Smith and Booth signed him on the strength of a single match - the one-off encounter between the British and Irish Lions and a weakened Argentina side at the Millennium Stadium almost exactly a year ago. The Lions, about to board their flight to New Zealand, were expected to win at a trot, especially as their opponents were denied the services of some 26 players, including the vast majority of those with names familiar to anyone beyond immediate family. As it turned out, the Argentinians drew the game, and would have left Cardiff with something more but for some generous timekeeping by the officials. Leguizamon was the pick of the Puma forwards. "One look at the tape was enough for us," Booth said.

"We had a second team playing that night," Leguizamon recalled. "So many of our top players were based in France - they still are - and could not be in Cardiff because of their championship commitments. Also, we had a big group of people involved in the Heineken Cup final only a day before the game. Agustin Pichot was there; so were Rodrigo Roncero and Omar Hasan and Juan Hernandez. For the biggest match of my career - my second cap, my first as a No 8 - there was no experience around me. There was heart, though. Such heart. I said to myself: 'Juan, you must go, go, go. Whatever happens, just go forward. It was a wonderful night for my country. I will never forget it."

At that time, Leguizamon was a member of the powerful San Isidro team in Buenos Aires, where he was studying physiotherapy. But he hails from Santiago del Estero, up in the backwoods about an hour's drive from Tucuman province, where many a touring team, not least England, have been tested in a union environment notoriously red in tooth and claw. "Ah, Tucuman," said Leguizamon with a knowing chuckle. "They play hard rugby, I think."

He earned his spurs turning out for - don't laugh, please - the Santiago Lawn Tennis Club, and his status was every bit as amateur as name of the team suggests. "I was doing some legal training, and playing rugby in whatever time I could spare," he said. "There is no money in Argentina. Not in my sport. When I moved to Buenos Aires, I still played as an amateur. I get some money from the Pumas, but not very much. Even now, 10 years after the beginning of professionalism, there is no possibility of money being paid at home. People like Gus Pichot have worked very hard to change this, but it will not happen soon. This is a long fight. For now, we have to play in Europe if we want the benefits of being professional."

Things are likely to get worse before they improve. Last month, a young player called Jose Bustamante, whose injuries during a game left him paralysed, successfully sued the Argentinian Rugby Union, which now faces a debt in excess of £300,000 - cash it cannot even begin to raise. "I heard about this, of course," Leguizamon said. "The union has big problems now, and it seems we'll be playing international rugby for even less money than before. That's not the point, I know, but it's not the best thing for the Pumas. What will we do? Keep playing. There is no other way. We have great rugby talents in our country. We showed against the Lions that we are capable of anything."

Perversely, there is a strong notion among the administrators in Buenos Aires that this very lack of financial clout helps the national side make the best of itself, at least in the short term. Even if the domestic game was professionalised tomorrow, it could not conceivably match the intensity of club rugby in England or France. By shipping the cream of the crop to Europe - this season, 20 Argentinian players were registered for the Heineken Cup alone - they give themselves a chance of stacking up at Test level, despite the economic imbalance that continues to undermine rugby's credentials as an international sport worthy of the name.

"I believe we can compete strongly in next year's World Cup in France," Leguizamon said. "At the moment, the plan is to prepare for the tournament in Argentina. But so many of us are based in France already, it may make sense to gather there and spend some quality time together. When we have had that time in the past, we've improved very rapidly as a Test team. But that is in 12 months' time. Next month, we must play Wales and New Zealand with very little preparation. Before the games with Wales in Argentina, we will have only a week together.

"This is not enough. It will be difficult - especially as one of those games will be played in Puerto Madryn, far to the south of Buenos Aires, where the rain and wind will be more familiar to them than to us. And there is no roof in Puerto Madryn. It is not like the Millennium Stadium."

Not that Leguizamon, who has agreed a two-year extension to his contract with an option for another, is concentrating on international affairs just yet. He has at least two games left to play, including next weekend's European Challenge Cup final with Gloucester, and possibly three, if London Irish do a Puma-like job on the Tigers tomorrow and reach the Premiership decider at Twickenham.

"This is a wonderful end to the season," he agreed. "I am lucky to be able to train twice a day with people who teach me so much, and lucky to be part of a team who love to run with the ball. Also, I'm lucky to be living in London. Everyone in Argentina wants to live here."

It will not be long before everyone wants to see Leguizamon play. Of all the newcomers to this season's Premiership, he may well come to be seen as the best buy.