Martin Castrogiovanni: 'My mum didn't like rugby, so I played basketball – up until I punched the ref'

Martin Castrogiovanni renounced non-contact sport to find his vocation in the scrum. Chris Hewett meets a force of nature
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It is generally the case that players with names too long for their shirts frighten the living hell out opponents. James Simpson-Daniel of Gloucester, for instance, has the scalding pace and dancing feet that prevent his rival wings sleeping at night, while the Bath centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu tackles like a true Samoan, which tells its own tale. Scariest of all is Martin Castrogiovanni of Leicester, who is something of a worry for everyone. Indeed, the more he reveals about himself, the bigger a worry he becomes.

"My mum didn't want me to play rugby," recalled the Argentine-born Italian prop this week as he wolfed his way through a mega-bag of pistachio nuts in the way a fox might rip through a henhouse. "So I played basketball, right up until I was 18. But rugby was the game I really wanted to try, so I switched." How might he have managed that, against the wishes of his mother? "I punched the referee," he replied. "Well, not a punch exactly – it was part punch, part push. Whatever it was, I knew I wouldn't be playing much more basketball; I didn't even turn up for the disciplinary hearing to find out the length of my ban." And mum? How did she react? "She loves rugby now."

The story tells a tale. Yet Castrogiovanni, born south of Buenos Aires in Parana, the capital of Entre Rios, and a late-flowering product of the Atletico Estudiantes club, was never counted among the real hard men of Argentine rugby. They still reside a long way north of the capital, in the badlands of Tucuman. "Italy will tour Argentina in the summer and are being asked to play in Tucuman, but it is not for me," he said. "I don't want to play there."

Although he now considers himself more Italian than Argentine – "My grandfather came from Sicily, near Mount Etna; you know, real Mafia country" – the Pumas tug at his heartstrings to this day. "Their performance in the World Cup made me so happy," he said. "I still have strong connections with many of the players. Half the people back home want to kill me for committing myself to Italy, but that's the Latin way. The other half, including the players who were with me in the Argentine Under-19 team and have gone on to be Pumas, understand that rugby is my career and that I made my choice for professional reasons. I'm happy with my decision, and happy that those who mean most to me support it."

Castrogiovanni is 26 now – no age for a front-row forward – and it is perfectly possible that by the time he plays at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand he will be acknowledged as the outstanding tight-head prop in the game. Last season, he won the Guinness Premiership's Player of the Year award at his first attempt, on the strength of a mere handful of games for Leicester. Just lately, his performances in the Six Nations Championship helped the Azzurri pack dominate against Ireland, France and Scotland. Almost six years into his Test career, he is beginning to challenge the All Black prop Carl Hayman as the best in the business.

Certainly, Wasps would have preferred it if Castrogiovanni's persistent problems with the tendons in his left shoulder had prevented him participating in this afternoon's EDF Energy Cup semi-final at the Millennium Stadium. The Londoners have two international props of their own in Tim Payne and Phil Vickery, and it is fair to say that Payne played one of his best games for England against the Italian in Rome last month. But precious few loose-head specialists emerge honours-even from an afternoon's unarmed combat with Castrogiovanni. If it is possible to subdue a force of nature occasionally, it is not possible to do it on a regular basis.

"When I first came to play for the Tigers, two things were made clear to me straight away: that a game against Northampton was different because of the local rivalry; and that a game against Wasps was different because... because they are Wasps," he said. "Training weeks ahead of these matches are not normal training weeks. They are more serious, more intense – like training weeks in football when Manchester United are playing Arsenal, I think. One of the realities of playing for Leicester is that in certain matches defeat is unimaginable. This is such a match.

"It is even more important than usual because, like Wasps, we failed to qualify for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals. It is natural that clubs who play at such a level should still be involved in that tournament, but this situation is not natural. So we must fulfil the expectations of our supporters in another way, and that means winning this competition. Leicester played in three finals last season, and won two. We cannot manage three this time, so we must make the best of the opportunities still left to us. This is why I believe the semi-final is as vital as any match since I arrived here."

That arrival was direct from Calvisano, the Italian club he had joined from Atletico Estudiantes in 2001. Three times in four years, he and his colleagues found themselves in the same Heineken Cup pool as a very strong Leicester side led by a certain Martin Osborne Johnson, and they suffered some fearful beatings: a 63-pointer, a 62-pointer, a 40-pointer. But up front, amid the mud and bullets, they did enough to earn the respect of their infinitely better-resourced rivals – none more so than Castrogiovanni.

"Calvisano is so small," he said. "I don't think there has ever been more than 2,000 people watching one of their games, no matter how famous the opposition. Here in Leicester, it is a little different: a full ground with 17,000 people every time we play. And the rugby in England is so much more competitive. At Calvisano, I would always expect to beat the last team in the Italian league by 50 points. In the Premiership, 10 points is often a big margin. I am learning so much, game by game and week by week. When I first arrived, my scrummaging was not my greatest strength. Now, it is 100 per cent better. I can feel it.

"To be honest, I wasn't sure if I could play here – if I was good enough. But when I arrived, the players did everything in their power to welcome me and make me feel happy. When someone is happy, he works hard; when he works hard, he improves. My rugby is like my English: when I moved here it wasn't good enough, but I'm learning very quickly."

For entirely legitimate reasons, Castrogiovanni feels he has landed on his feet: when with Italy, he works with Nick Mallett, one of the three or four outstanding coaches in the sport; when with Leicester, he operates under the educated eye of his Argentine compatriot Marcelo Loffreda, who guided a Puma team he rarely saw to an extraordinary World Cup podium finish last autumn before moving to Welford Road.

"That was a great achievement," he said. "Everyone who follows rugby knows the problems in Argentine rugby, which force so many players to move abroad and make it very difficult for the national coach to work with his players for more than a few days every year. For Marcelo to take the team to third place in the world was incredible, and I am enjoying playing for him here.

"Nick is a different kind of person, but I think he will be good for Italian rugby. He is a man who makes players feel confident about themselves. He told us before the start of the Six Nations: 'Don't make the mistake of going into this championship thinking you're the underdogs. You're not underdogs. You can compete with these people and, if you do the right things, beat them.' He creates a positive atmosphere and I respond to it. A player is lucky if he has two coaches he respects."

Not content with mastering his trade on the tight-head side of the scrum – quite the most physically demanding position on the field – Castrogiovanni is keen to spend some quality time performing the loose-head role. "I prefer playing tight," he said, "but when I came to this club, I asked Cockers [Richard Cockerill, the former hooker who now coaches the forwards at Welford Road] if I could have an opportunity at No 1 as well. To be versatile is to be valuable. If I can operate in both positions, I have a much greater chance of being picked."

There seems little prospect of Castrogiovanni being overlooked in selection, either for club or country. Leicester have a strong group of props – the 25-year-old Argentine loose-head specialist Marcos Ayerza is a mighty talent, and they have the likes of Julian White and Alex Moreno hanging around the place, along with a decent posse of youngsters – while Italy, armed with Salvatore Perugini and Carlos Nieto, as well as Andrea Lo Cicero, are second only to the Pumas in terms of depth. Yet Castrogiovanni's recent achievements are such that there is rarely, if ever, a meaningful debate about his position.

"To win the Player of the Year award last season was wonderful," he said. "It is not easy for a prop to be recognised, and I still can't quite believe it happened to me." There is a basketball referee south of the Argentine capital who cannot quite believe what happened to him, either. But it did. And as a direct result, rugby union finds itself blessed with a character in a million.