Marcelo Loffreda: Puma who became a Tiger

The coach who guided Argentina to third place at the World Cup has swapped Buenos Aires for Bushby, but still feels at home
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The Independent Online

The delight and amazement with which English fans greeted their team's unlikely passage to the World Cup final in October rather obscured, at least in this country, the outstanding achievement of the tournament: Argentina twice defeating their French hosts, as well as Scotland and Ireland, to finish third.

Even more remarkable is that the man who masterminded that extraordinary feat, and who steered the Pumas to third place in the world rankings where they look down on Australia, England and France was, right up to the World Cup, only a part-timer; his full-time job until the end of last summer was as international sales manager for a textile company in Buenos Aires. Not so remarkable is that Leicester, looking for a new coach, had already decided to give that same man, Marcelo Loffreda, his first professional rugby job.

And so to a bitterly cold January day at Oval Park, Leicester's training ground. Loffreda is outside, overseeing a session with the forwards, but the club's press officer assures me he will turn up five minutes before our noon appointment. He does, too. Unlike his predecessor, the laid-back Aussie Pat Howard, the 48-year-old is a stickler for punctuality. Along with much else, he has brought old-fashioned Argentine manners to Oval Park. Even his decent but flawed English is a pleasure to listen to: he worked full-time for his company in Buenos Aires until "the thirty-oneth" of August, he tells me.

I congratulate him on his achievement in the World Cup and ask how satisfying it was to learn that the biggest occasion in Argentine sport, the Buenos Aries football derby between River Plate and Boca Juniors, a fixture so significant it is even given a name, El Superclasico, was postponed for a few hours so the nation could watch the quarter-final against Scotland.

"Yes, that was massive," he says. "To think that everybody was missing soccer to watch rugby... when we heard that we began to understand what was happening in our country. Before that, because we were in France, we did not know." The welcome home reflected how much Loffreda's team, and indeed their sport, had been clutched to the collective bosom. Buenos Aries went nuts, and President and Mrs Kirchner gave the team a lavish reception.

A few weeks later, incidentally, Argentina's first couple became President and Mr Kirchner, when Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner succeeded her husband, Nestor. Would that Argentine rugby politics were as civilised. The Rugby Football Union is a model of youthful, visionary dynamism compared with the Union Argentina de Rugby and the players, led by their ebullient captain Agustin Pichot, remain openly scornful of the ruling body's fusty conservatism. They even threatened to strike over the decision to pay them only their expenses at the World Cup, while Pichot has angrily declared it "unbelievable" that the UAR wants the domestic game to stay amateur and has not lobbied in any meaningful way for the Pumas' inclusion in an annual international competition. Loffreda himself is a little more diplomatic, but also despairs of the stubborn adherence to the amateur ethos.

"Everybody is waiting for them to finish their terms of office so that changes can be made," he says. "The team has achieved so much and we need the officials to be on the same level but, how do you say it, they are struggling. It is obvious that we need a professional team in Argentina and to play in a big competition. My first thought was that it would be best for Argentina to enter the Six Nations. I still sustain that, although of course it is not going to happen. Instead the team might join the Tri-Nations but that is not easy either, because our players play in the northern hemisphere. The political situation is very difficult."

He smilingly declines to confirm a story I have heard that underlines the hostility between board and team that after Argentina's momentous 25-18 win over England at Twickenham in November 2006 the union's president, Alejandro Risler, did not bother to visit the dressing-room. Off the record, I imagine Loffreda would be scathing.

Still, the important relationship at the World Cup was between him and the players and that, he says, was terrific. Even with the fiery Pichot? "Oh yes, very good. He has his character, I have my character, and we sometimes discussed things quite hotly, but we had all our fights inside the [team] room. When we finished and went out of the room there was only one voice."

Nor was there the slightest indication inside the team room or out that the star player, the dazzling No 10 Juan Martin Hernandez, had taken to heart what people at home were beginning to call him: the Maradona of rugby. "Anyway, you can't have a Maradona in rugby," says Loffreda. Is that, I po-facedly venture, because Maradona is better with his hands than any rugby player? There is the briefest of pauses, then the merriest of laughs. "Maybe," he says.

"But Maradona was able to make that second goal against the English. He can pass through six, seven, eight players. In rugby it is not the same. You have to work in a team and if the prop doesn't push, the wing cannot score in the corner. Everyone has to know his role. Of course Hernandez is a very talented player, one of the best, and he is very committed, always training to reach a higher level, physically and technically. But there are 14 other players."

Where though, I wonder, does Hernandez stand in the annals of Argentine rugby? Loffreda played for the national team from 1978 to 1994 (a centre, he was known as El Tano, "the Italian", his paternal great-grandfather having been an immigrant from Italy), and for the first eight or nine of those years he played outside the talismanic Hugo Porta, whom Will Carling, for one, considers to have been one of the 10 greatest players of all time.

"Hernandez needs to make his kicking a little more accurate but he will be greater than Porta, I think," Loffreda says, which rather begs the question: might the bobby dazzler from Stade Franais join his compatriot in the East Midlands at the end of the season?

"Many people ask that but it is not for me to talk about. First of all I don't know about negotiations between the two clubs, and also we have already good players in that position. It is disrespectful to them to talk too much about Hernandez."

Let us instead, then, talk about his own early weeks in his new job. Leicester, the Premiership champions, are not setting the league alight and face an uphill struggle to progress from a tough group in the Heineken Cup. For the first time in his rugby life, Loffreda carries the burden of great expectations. "This is a must-win club," he says. "There is a huge tradition here, a lovely stadium, and the support of the crowd is really, really amazing. They have the rugby passion, which is different from the soccer passion. So I am very happy to be here and happy with what I have done but there is much more to do. I need to be more accurate with my words. I have got better in less than two months, but I will soon start lessons."

It must nevertheless be flattering, I suggest, that the Leicester board, having considered the likes of Jake White and Eddie Jones, finally alighted on a man whose first language is not English?

"Yes, I am very proud, and it is good for rugby in Argentina," he says. "But I need to get better at English to say technical things. Not so much to motivate because they are already pretty well motivated. If you try to give them more reasons to be motivated then they can collapse. Do you understand?"

I do, and I assure him that his English is already very much better than that of Ricky Villa, whom I interviewed, with great difficulty, a couple of years ago. "Who?" he says. "Ricky Villa, the footballer." He looks blank. "He played for Tottenham Hotspur, with Osvaldo Ardiles. "Ah, Villa, Villa," he says, pronouncing it completely differently Veeja and offering a timely reminder that his English is well ahead of my Spanish.

I don't doubt that by the end of his time in England it will be all but fluent. He is a well-educated man, with a degree in civil engineering, and I ask whether his background somehow helps him coach. "In some ways, yes," he says. "It helps my methods, my structure, my way of thinking, not so much in working with the team, but to organise my time, what I want to practise, how I want to practise."

Has anything surprised him about Leicester? "Yes, the level of professionalism is amazing. But I tell them I want them to play with the heart of amateurs."

Tomorrow, he will be looking for that heart in a fixture that traditionally poses problems, away at Harlequins. Moreover, it will pit Loffreda against the man who, arguably more than any other, for years represented the soul of Leicester, Quins' director of rugby, Dean Richards. "I respect him very much, he is an excellent coach," says Loffreda, and he echoes the sentiment when I mention his counterpart in next weekend's vital Heineken Cup match against Edinburgh. "I have great respect for Andy Robinson."

It was Loffreda's team's win that November day at Twickenham, I remind him, that more than any other scoreline scuppered Robinson's career as England coach. "Well, that was one of many things," he says. "Nobody can make me responsible for that. And he is doing well with Edinburgh."

Loffreda knows fortunes can change quickly and will not speculate on being at Welford Road beyond the end of his current deal, which lasts until 2010. But he says he did not hesitate "in rugby terms" about taking the job; his overriding concern was for his family he has four daughters and a son, aged between 12 and 19.

"They just got here two weeks ago, and they have highs and lows, especially at this time of year, with Christmas and New Year," he says. "The weather has a big relation with your mind. When you are used to sunshine, it is hard to see it dark at four o'clock. But they begin their studies next week, and will get more used to it."

He is renting a home in the nearby village of Bushby, and has seen what else rural Leicestershire has to offer. "I have seen Great Glen, Houghton-on-the-Hill, Market Harborough. I found it amazing, Market Harborough. A very nice town." And has he yet found a steak to rival those of Buenos Aires? He smiles. "I need to find, how do you say, a good butchery." I ask him whether he has tried a Melton Mowbray pork pie. The smile fades slightly. "Yeah, a pork pie, I tried it." I think it safe to say his appetite for pork pies does not match his appetite for success.

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