Perfect day for Contepomi the flair controller

O'Driscoll and D'Arcy grab the eye but the man inside them is the key to Leinster's success
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The Independent Online

As the natural successor to Hugo Porta he was described as the best fly-half in South America. When he joined Bristol they thought he was the best in the West Country, and when he moved to Leinster half of Ireland saw him as the finest No 10 in the Celtic League. Now they are saying he is the best in Europe.

In scoring points, Felipe Contepomi could be top of the debating class. In the Heineken Cup this season he is the leading hunter-gatherer with 125 and joint top try-scorer with six, but that is only part of the story. "Felipe is pretty good and we're getting sick of saying it," Michael Cheika, Leinster's Australian coach, said.

It was in the quarter-finals in Toulouse that Contepomi and his adopted Irish province produced one of the greatest displays in the history of the competition. They knocked out the champions 41-35, scoring four tries to two; Contepomi, who played Frédéric Michalak off his own park, contributed 21 points and was the man of a match made in heaven. Toulouse's supporters, who had not seen a home defeat in the tournament for 20 games and six seasons, applauded Leinster off the pitch and on to the bus.

"Everyone talks about Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy, but the real danger man is Felipe," Yannick Jauzion, the Toulouse centre, said. "He has been fantastic for them. His goalkicking has relieved a lot of pressure at crucial moments, but it is the way he controls the back line that really makes the difference. He likes to play flat and this gives them extra space."

Leinster will need every inch of it at Lansdowne Road today in what promises to be an epic all-Ireland semi-final against Munster. "We play in different styles and we know each other pretty well," Contepomi said. "It will take something special to spring a surprise."

Put simply, Leinster have a back line, full of internationals and with O'Driscoll (right) in fine fettle, to die for; Munster have a pack that will die for the cause. The former are seen as the city slickers from the capital who will give you the runaround, the latter the rustic old boys from the country who will run through a brick outhouse.

"Munster are the tough guys and we are the softies," Conte-pomi said. "I feel insulted. It's all clichés. When the Leinster boys play for Ireland you would not say they were soft, would you? Munster have a style that works for them and fair enough, but I don't know if the people enjoy that kind of rugby or how much the players enjoy it. A kicking role at No 10 wouldn't suit me. The way we try to play is how I feel about the game."

This is one match that does not need any hype, but it is getting it anyway. It is not only Conte-pomi v Ronan O'Gara but also Cheika against Declan Kidney. Kidney was transplanted as Leinster's coach last year when he walked out to rejoin Munster. Cheika, a former New South Wales Waratahs No 8, and his assistant, David Knox, the ex-Wallaby stand-off, have introduced what they call "heads up, top of the ground" rugby. This suits Contepomi fine. When Kidney was in charge, the Argentinian hardly got a look-in.

What makes his career all the more remarkable is that he combines playing for club, province and country (he captained Argen-tina against the Lions in Cardiff last May), with a gruelling workload as a 28-year-old medical student. After rugby training in the mornings he often spends 20 hours a week as an intern at a local hospital as well as working on his finals. Oh, and he became a father in February when his Argentinian girlfriend gave birth to a daughter, Catalina. He should qualify as a doctor from the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin in May 2007, when his contract with Leinster expires. He will be 30 when he plays for Argentina in the World Cup and, yes, one of their opponents will be O'Driscoll's Ireland. They met in the 1999 World Cup, when the Pumas pulled off a famous victory.

One of five brothers and three sisters, Contepomi comes from the San Isidro barrio of Buenos Aires and learned to play at Cardinal Newman College. His father, Carlos, was a captain and coach of the Pumas and his twin brother, Manuel, plays for Bristol. Felipe had spent four years studying in Buenos Aires when his compatriot Agustin Pichot persuaded him to join Bristol. When they were relegated in 2003 he moved to Dublin. "That was one of the hardest moments. Bristol were my first professional club and they gave me a lot, the people, the city and the team. I still love them and I follow them on the internet."

Some of Contepomi's scoring exploits at the Memorial Ground are the stuff of legend: 31 points against Northampton, 30 against Wasps, 29 against Leeds. In all he amassed 573 points, including 19 tries. Enjoying what he calls his liberation at Leinster, who made him captain while O'Driscoll was recovering from his dislocated shoulder, he made his 50th appearance for the province last week and is the top scorer in the Celtic League, pushing 250 points. It is what he has been doing in the Heineken, however, that has raised him to the point of hero worship in Dublin.

Leinster began with a home defeat to Bath (they only qualified for the knockout stages as the second-best runners-up) but in the return leg ran riot at the Rec, where Contepomi set the tone by running a penalty from close to his own line which ended with Shane Horgan scoring at the posts. "When the game starts I transform myself. It was not the craziest thing I've done. Sometimes I get too passionate, but if you don't take risks you'll never know how far you can go."

Ah, the perfect 10, as worn in the light blue and white by Porta and Diego Maradona. "The No 10 jersey is very important in Arg-entina," Contepomi says. "Hugo left a legacy I will never forget, and Maradona was the best thing ever to happen to sport in Argentina." And the hand of God? Felipe has shaken it many times.

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