Marcos Ayerza: 'Joining the Tri-Nations is just what the Pumas need'

Leicester prop Marcos Ayerza tells Chris Hewett about missing family life in Buenos Aires, how playing in England has made him better, and why southern-hemisphere internationals will be the making of his beloved Argentina
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The Independent Online

The "good cop, bad cop" tradition among rugby's propping community is one of long standing, stretching back at least 80 years to the Louw brothers, Fanie and Boy, who played for the Springboks in an age when self- policing at the scrum was all the rage.

Today, Leicester are taking it to extremes. On one side of their front row is Martin Castrogiovanni, who famously decked a basketball coach as a means of convincing his mother that he should be allowed to play union instead. On the other? Marcos Ayerza, who spends his spare time playing Bach and Chopin on the piano.

A highly developed appreciation of classical music is no guarantee of civilised behaviour: Hannibal Lecter was almost as interested in the labyrinthine structure of the Goldberg Variations as he was in his victims' internal organs. But Ayerza is almost too good to be true: an accomplished linguist, he is currently completing a degree in business studies – "It's more difficult for me in English rather than Spanish," he admits, "but I'm looking forward to writing my dissertation" – and is a rugby romantic who does not see the game purely in terms of the money he can make from it. A renaissance man in the Tigers' pack? Wonders will never cease.

Like Castrogiovanni, the 26-year-old prop was born in Argentina. Unlike Castrogiovanni, who took up an option to play international rugby for Italy rather than stick with his homeland, Ayerza is 100 per cent Puma. His contest with the Paris-based Rodrigo Roncero for the national team's No 1 shirt has yet to be firmly decided in his favour, but he is slowly getting there. Many good judges confidently predict that at the next World Cup, in New Zealand in 2011, Ayerza will prove himself the finest loose-head specialist in the game.

It is by no means certain that he will still be with Leicester in two years' time. His current contract expires at the end of next season and recent developments on the international front – most notably the decision to incorporate the long- neglected Pumas into an expanded southern hemisphere Test tournament – means any long-term plans he might have had to stay in England will have to be reconsidered. And anyway, Ayerza is missing his family back home in Buenos Aires.

"My experience with Leicester has made me a better player," he says. "I am sure of this. The work ethic is very strong, the standard very high. I would have to be doing something really wrong not to improve my game. One of the reasons I came here when I did was the 2007 World Cup. I wanted to be a part of it and, thanks to this club, I was chosen to represent my country at one of the great moments in its rugby history. At Leicester, the environment forces you to face up to your own weaknesses and put things right. It is a good preparation for rugby at Test level.

"But it is too early for me to say what I will do in the future. Joining the Tri-Nations in 2012 is just what we need to help us build on our World Cup place. We finished third, but the game is still amateur in my country and we cannot expect to maintain our success without keeping pace with the biggest rugby nations. It has been one of the hardest things, to stay at our level of 2007, and without this incentive, we could easily go the way of Samoa. Yet it is hard to tell where this will leave the European-based players, especially as the new southern hemisphere tournament will run into late October and will be followed by the usual November internationals up here. It may be that Argentine players currently playing in the Premiership or in France will have to go south and join the Super 14 teams.

"Also, I must think of my home life. I am one of 10 siblings and even though I moved here in 2006, I still find it hard to be away from Buenos Aires when important family occasions take place. My father has been to England to watch me play: one of my brothers has been here too, and a sister as well. But they cannot come often – as everyone says, Buenos Aires is a long way from everywhere – and I miss them. At some point, I know I will go back to play rugby for my old club, the club I joined as a 12-year-old."

That club is Newman, based in the San Isidro area of the city and linked to the city's Cardinal Newman College. Ayerza is far from the first notable player to emerge from this nursery – the Contepomi brothers, Felipe and Manuel, are among those who played their early rugby there – but it is difficult to imagine any modern full-time professional being prouder of his roots.

"I think the thing I most love about rugby is the camaraderie," he explains. "I always loved the idea of joining a club as a young boy and continuing right the way through to retirement, building great friendships along the way. I was raised in that culture, I treasure it and I completely feel a part of it. I won my first caps while playing for Newman: my debut was against the Springboks in Buenos Aires in 2004. I knew then that I would probably play rugby abroad at some point, but I thought I'd be in my thirties when it happened, not my early twenties. I would have been very happy to stay in Argentina had Leicester not approached me."

Ayerza was sitting in the lobby of the Pumas' hotel, checking his emails on the public computer, when he read one from an agent suggesting that he might fancy a stint at Welford Road. "I knew nothing of Leicester," he recalls. "If players were approached by agents, it was usually on behalf of Toulouse or Stade Français or Agen. At the time, there was quite a bit of French club rugby on television in Argentina, but we saw very little of the Premiership. So I turned to Les, who was sitting next to me, and said: "You're English. Do you know anything of Leicester?"

By startling coincidence, the "Les" in question was Les Cusworth, the one-time England coach who had hitched up with the Argentines and just happened to have played 365 games for Leicester as an outside-half. "Of course, he knew everything about them," Ayerza says. "He put me in touch with the right people at the club and it went from there. Even then, I was tempted to stay in Buenos Aires. I had my degree to think about – at that point, I had only one term of work left to do – and I had never played professionally. I was used to training with the team in the morning, going to the gym late at night and studying in between. I liked my life. But when I asked some of the older international players about it, they said: 'Leicester? That's cool'. So I agreed."

His contribution to the Leicester cause has been considerable indeed: since playing his first Premiership game a little over three years ago, he has made over 70 appearances, the vast majority of them as the starting loose head. Yet characteristically, he prefers to talk about what life with the Tigers has done for him, rather than what he has done for the Tigers.

"When I go back to play for the Pumas now, I take good things with me," he says. "New ideas, new techniques... the things I am learning at Leicester are the things that help us grow stronger as a Test team. With so many obstacles still in the way of Argentine rugby, the experience of playing professionally in Europe is crucial in helping us maintain the standards we have set for ourselves.

"This will be a challenging time, though. We must learn to play without Agustin Pichot [the little scrum-half and captain who inspired the Pumas to their wonderful third place at the World Cup in '07]. Agustin was a natural leader – sometimes, I thought he had a Napoleon complex! We need new people like him to take us forward. Rugby is 90 per cent mindset, so it's important to have someone who understands how to talk to players, how to motivate them. You can have all the skills, all the fitness and all the power, but without a leader, it is very difficult to achieve."

What Ayerza has achieved in three short years of professional union is remarkable, and there is much more to come. But first, he must complete that long-delayed dissertation of his. The subject? Rugby as big business.

Migrating Pumas: Argentines who could quit Europe

*Horacio Agulla

Test wing playing with the British contingent at Brive.

*Patricio Albacete

Brilliant lock, currently turning out for Toulouse.

*Lucas Borges

Experienced wing contracted to struggling French club Albi.

*Gonzalo Camacho

Yet another wing, highly rated by troubled Harlequins.

*Juan Martin

Fernandez Lobbe Wonderful for Sale last season, now in Toulon.

*Alfredo Lalanne

Scrum-half often seen in Exiles' match-day squad.

*Pedro Ledesma

One of the new breed of Puma props, based in Paris.

*Juan Manuel Leguizamon

No 8 playing alongside Ledesma for Stade Français.

*Gonzalo Tiesi

Regular Premiership starter for Harlequins in the centre.

*Alberto Vernet Basualdo

Versatile front-row forward playing for Toulouse.