Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Jaguares coach GONZALO QUESADA talks about his return to Argentinian rugby, how he rates South Africa’s World Cup chances and who he views as the world’s best No 10s.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess your Super Rugby season so far?
Gonzalo Quesada: We are happy with the way things are going, but of course we have suffered many more injuries than we expected. We are trying to adapt our planning and programme and afford opportunities to new, young players. Almost 90 per cent of the players that are in our group play for the Argentinian national team, so we are negotiating the Super Rugby season and also preparing for the World Cup. We are trying to be careful not to give too much game time to the guys who have to arrive fresh enough to play in the World Cup later in the year. Overall, we have had some good games and others which we were not that happy with. (The Jaguares have won four and lost four matches this term). However, the important thing is that many young players are debuting, which is good because Argentinian rugby urgently needs to find more playing options. Like with South Africa, there are number of Argentinian players heading abroad, but unlike them we don’t have as many talented players in almost every school, university or club team. We focus on results, of course, but try to keep on developing Argentinian rugby. We are continuing the process that started a few years ago with the Jaguares and are providing a good base of players to the national team. I will form part of Argentina’s coaching staff for the World Cup and have already worked with head coach Mario Ledesma during the last Rugby Championship and the November tour. Switching between the Jaguares head coaching role and an assistant coaching position with the senior national team is a lot of work, but it’s a nice challenge which I will really enjoy, especially in a World Cup year.
Sport24 asked: Why did you decide to return to coach the Jaguares?
Gonzalo Quesada: Having spent 20 years in France, the possibility of coming back to Argentina was available. (Quesada had a stint with the French national team and Racing Metro, but it was at Stade Francais where he enjoyed the most success, leading them to the Top 14 title and the Challenge Cup). With the UAR needing some new coaches and fresh ideas, it was a good opportunity for me, and to live close to my family, friends and home club made sense. It was the whole package that was interesting to me, but of course the main motivation was knowing that the Jaguares are involved in the premier tournament in the world, with Super Rugby the best level of rugby we can find. We want to keep improving many aspects of our game and if we are able to do that, I feel we can find ourselves fighting for a play-off positon. As a team, we try not to talk about winning or losing or qualifying or not. However, last year the Jaguares had a play-off for the first time against the Lions (which they lost 40-23) and it was an historic moment. We would love to get a bit more consistency and be in the top part of the table. The Sharks produced one of the best performances of the year against the Lions and to have beaten them last weekend in Durban shows that we are on the right path. The guys were tired after all the travelling and had a big game against the Bulls, but beating the Sharks (51-17) shows how much we have improved as a team and we will continue to work hard.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess the state of South African rugby?
Gonzalo Quesada: I admire South African rugby and, when I was really young as a player, I was part of a couple of club tours to the country. South African rugby has a rich history and I later had the chance to tour with the Argentinian national team. (Quesada played four Tests against the Springboks, two of which were in South Africa). I witnessed the tradition and values of rugby in South Africa and how people live the game in the rainbow nation. Some years ago, the South African provinces and the Springboks weren’t playing at their best and perhaps their potential was better than what they were showing. In terms of the Springboks, under coach Rassie Erasmus they have showed a lot of improvement. As with every Rugby World Cup, South Africa will naturally be one of the main candidates for the title. With the amount of talent in the South African provinces, they could almost take two teams to the World Cup and fight for the final with the All Blacks and maybe one or two other teams. I’m quite confident that the Springboks will have a big role to play in Japan.
Sport24 asked: Is the 2019 World Cup one of the most open in recent years?
Gonzalo Quesada: The All Blacks have always been the favourites and that is both fair and logical because they have been the team that have played the best rugby for the last six years. However, either with them or behind them I would definitely put South Africa. New Zealand, South Africa and Australia are the big three southern hemisphere contenders for sure and Ireland, England and Argentina would be in my second group of candidates. Going with Argentina to win the World Cup is of course more my heart than my head. I don’t know if we should be higher than 10th in the World Rugby rankings because our results over the last three to four years have been disappointing. We were quite happy last year with the two wins in the Rugby Championship against the Springboks and Wallabies, but there is still a lot of work to do. Our main challenge is to see how we manage for almost a full year with the same group of players. It’s really tough for this group of guys and the big challenge for us is arriving at the World Cup with enough energy and players who are not injured. You have to be fit and mentally prepared for a World Cup campaign. If we arrive to do that then maybe we can improve our position in the world rankings. But today we are not focusing on that and are trying to improve our structures and working process. We share a plan among the coaches and have a vision of where we want Argentinian rugby to go. Everyone is working in the same direction.
Sport24 asked: As an ex-flyhalf, who do you rate as the world’s best No.10s?
Gonzalo Quesada: Jonathan Sexton would of course be right up there as reigning World Rugby Player of the Year and Beauden Barrett is an obvious candidate. Both players possess the skill-set required to play at a maximum level. They also have cool heads and the character to be the number one flyhalves in the game today. I would also put Nicolas Sanchez and Handré Pollard in my top four. I like No.10s that can withstand pressure and it must be said that you need to have the character to manage a game when you play in the flyhalf position, especially in today’s game where things are tough and you have to handle plenty of pressure. I like Pollard’s personality and it looks like he is a competitor. The four flyhalves in question love winning and will never have an attitude of giving up. I think that character is what makes them the best flyhalves in the world. The role of the flyhalf is getting more and more important in the modern game. Defences are always improving and the No.10 is the one that has to be constantly in position to dictate the game, see where the opportunities are, when the game must accelerate and when it must slow down. Decision making is really tough and every year the pressure on the flyhalf position gets big and bigger. Almost every attacking system in rugby revolves around the No.10 and 12, so having a well-rounded flyhalf with good skills makes a big difference at the highest level of rugby. For me, the complete No.10 has character, a kicking game and can carry the ball and create danger. He needs to make good decisions and be a real leader of the boys out on the pitch. If that is the case, then you don’t need a lot more.
Sport24 asked: What, for you, sets the Crusaders apart from the chasing pack?
Gonzalo Quesada: I think the Crusaders have the strongest character in world rugby. From their culture, you can see that they have legacy in terms of the way in which they train, play and live rugby. Their culture runs deep and if you have followed them for years and years, the kind of rugby they play, the way they train and the character of the whole club makes them the strongest. You can see that they are absolutely convinced in terms of what they are doing, how they are doing it and why they are doing it. Consistency is the word that comes to my mind when I think about the Crusaders. Every team has its own culture, but what sets the Crusaders apart from the chasing pack is that they have something really deep and strong between the players, the jersey and the rugby they play. I think that is the biggest weapon they have, but of course that would not be enough without a really skilful group of players. It must be noted that they also work really well with their academy and every year you see new players arriving. Each year, there are three to five players who have their first opportunity for the Crusaders and maybe three or four years later they are All Blacks. The way they work on young players to make them ready for Test level is also one of their strengths.
Sport24 asked: What are your passions away from the oval-shaped game?
Gonzalo Quesada: Outside of rugby, my main hobby is polo. When I grew up in Argentina we had a ride around the field and on weekends I would play polo as a kid. When I started playing international rugby, I stopped playing polo. However, when I hung up my boots and started coaching, especially when I was in Paris, I was playing polo which is my second sporting passion. While I was living in Paris, I also enjoyed following the tennis and would regularly attend the French Open. I lived 10 minutes away from Stade Roland Garros and went to support the Argentinian players competing in the tournament such as Juan Martin del Potro and Diego Schwartzman. I have watched Rafael Nadal win almost all of his Roland Garros titles (Nadal has won The Musketeers’ Trophy 11 times) but I really went more to watch my countrymen playing there than the Spaniard. I also watched the likes of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the closing stages of the tournament.