No one can be sure where Rob Andrew, England's elite rugby director, draws the line between "high-quality foreign players" and their "run of the mill" cousins, but it is fair to assume Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe belongs in the former category. Sale Sharks clearly think so, having appointed the Argentinian flanker as their captain for the new season – one in which their cosmopolitan squad aim to rediscover the quality which made them champions two years ago.
Andrew cautioned the Premiership clubs on Thursday not to hold the nation's youth back by filling their teams with overseas journeymen. Sale would plead not guilty. They jettisoned 11 players, including five Englishmen, during the summer, while Dwayne Peel, the Wales scrum-half, and Mathew Tait, who sees himself as England's top full-back, led the group coming in. Magnus Lund has moved to France, leaving behind a back row featuring Lobbe, Scotland's Jason White and Sébastien Chabal of France. But the club also have two English options in Luke Abraham, newly arrived from Leicester, and Chris Jones.
Lobbe, 26, is "very proud" to have been given the Sale captaincy by their director of rugby, Philippe Saint-André (a Frenchman), unsurprisingly, given the competing talent. Lobbe lists the men he calls Sale's "massive forwards" – Andrew Sheridan, White, Chabal, Dean Schofield, Sébastien Bruno – and then the backs: Charlie Hodgson, Luke McAllister, Lee Thomas, Tait, Rory Lamont, Oriol Ripol and Mark Cueto.
It may not quite be Andrew's dream team but it's a champion side in the making – on paper. "That's the thing," Lobbe said. "We have the names, but if we start thinking about the names and we don't think about the team, we're going to be screwed, easy. We need to go really direct, play really straight rugby. Itsuits me to develop as a No 7, 'Whitey' is an amazing runner and will smash opponents in the tackle and 'Seabass' [Chabal] is the same."
Before Sale can hurt the opposition they need to get over the pain of last season. Requiring a single point to reach the play-offs, they were beaten, dismally, 17-7 by London Irish in Stockport. When Saint-André looked around the dressing room and saw "Juan was one of the few crying", he had found his new captain. The season before – Lobbe's first after he joined in the wake of the 2006 title success – was ruined by injuries and Sale finished 10th.
"I'm going to take the boys out in Manchester this week for team bonding," Lobbe said. He possesses the implacable brown-eyed stare and hirsute chin of a spaghetti-western gunslinger, but the residents of the Rovers Return need not be concerned about the saloon doors flying off their hinges. "We'll have a meal and walk around and have a coffee. There's 45 of us, because my idea is to take the physios, doctors, everyone. The whole team need to be happy in order to be positive."
Such is the mantra from this son of Buenos Aires who lives with his wife, Annie, in "a nice quiet green place" in Sale. "I am a guy that likes to speak in the dressing room, likes to build up the momentum of the team," Lobbe said. "On the pitch it's just about giving everything. It's when you see a guy beside you smashing his head against the knee of the opposition, you want to do the same."
Three weeks ago, he won his 25th cap in an Argentina team hammered 63-9 by South Africa in Johannesburg. "They were in the middle of the Tri-Nations, we were all on holidays," said Lobbe, but he expects better in November when the Pumas face France, Italy and Ireland with World Cup ranking points at stake. Agustin Pichot, the scrum-half, and Lobbe's older brother Ignacio, who was at Sale before him but recently joined Northampton, are among those to have retired from Tests.
"The Pumas have a new squad and we have to work our balls off in each game and start developing again," said Lobbe. "I just hope we can get in a competition, the Tri-Nations or Six Nations. We play six games a year and it's no good for us."
So Lobbe was obliged to leave behind amateur Argentina, where he had worked as an industrial engineer producing glass phials for pharmacies, to play professionally. But not forever. "When I'm 60 years old I will watch my club with my kids and all my friends will be the guys I had battles with on the pitch," he said, and the club he refers to is not Sale, of course, but Liceo Naval. It stands cheek by jowl with the huge River Plate football stadium.
"Most of the football players are from a lower background, if you know what I mean," Lobbe said. "Last weekend 10,000 people ran a marathon in Buenos Aires for a rugby player who injured his neck. That's rugby for me. I'm a lucky guy, I really have to thank God for all this."Reuse content