When he took the head coach job towards the end of 2019, Tomás Bongiorno had big plans and goals for the Argentina women’s sevens side.
In his first tournament, the annual Sudamericamo de Sevens in Montevideo, Uruguay, it seemed that Argentina were closing the gap on Brazil, the frontrunner in the region.
“We came close to winning it, and that was a great motivation boost as I believed they were much better than us,” Bongiorno tells World Rugby from his home city of Córdoba. “There are many differences between us, but in that tournament, they were not there.”
Soon after, he took his side to the Beach Rugby tournament in Rio de Janeiro, which they duly won.
And then, came the COVID-19 pandemic.
“From March 2020, it was all virtual. Initially, we had four training sessions a week – with adapted fitness programmes taking into account the space players had at home and what materials they could come across.”
Throughout 2020 and 2021, Argentina 7s worked with a 40-player squad. As soon as lockdowns began to ease “we began to work on contact. Even today it is our top priority as it is the weakest link of the whole process," says Bongiorno.
Every player gave their utmost, with only two not able to fulfill the demands of the new set-up. “We’ve kept a committed, solid group,” declares Bongiorno.
Returning to action
Argentina only managed to return to action in November 2020 at the Valentín Martínez tournament in Montevideo, which doubles up as the South American tournament. And they did so with a young side: “rewarding the commitment of many players that worked tirelessly and with the need to give new players an insight into international competition," says Bongiorno.
Having travelled to Uruguay three weeks earlier to prepare the team, two positive COVID-19 tests complicated everything.
“We were locked down for 28 days in a hotel, only allowed to go to train and return. It was hard, but harder for the two girls that had couldn’t leave their rooms, being on their own, when there were many doubts and fears around how bad COVID-19 could be. Fortunately, they had no symptoms.”
The goal at the tournament was to strengthen the team and they finished in fifth place.
Monaco on the horizon
With the trip to the Principality in the back of their minds, Argentina held two 10-day camps in Tucumán earlier this year with 16 players.
Any future meeting was stopped due to a new wave of COVID-19 hitting the country; as World Rugby spoke with Bongiorno, he was busy trying to sort out the challenges of assembling his squad ahead of the trip to Monaco for the Olympic Repechage tournament.
“It is not how we had planned or the ideal scenario; but then, almost no team has had reached its ideal.”
His captain since the end of 2019 agrees. Gime Mattus came to the game in Chilecito, a small town of around 30,000 inhabitants situated where the Andes start to grow. At 14, nine years ago, she went to the city’s only club, Nevado RC. Today, there are three women’s clubs in the city.
“I became a sportswoman and player in a small, humble club, that made a mark on me. I had to leave it in 2018 to pursue high-performance plans with the Argentine Rugby Union, moving to Tucumán,” she says.
For a town such as Chilecito, so far detached from a bustling city such as Monaco, to have a national captain was huge: “I was shocked! There are players that have been in the system for longer.”
But Mattus's captaincy hasn't been an easy journey. “I am into my third year in the national side and we were struck by the pandemic. It has been strange.”
Aiming for Tokyo
With clubs and gyms closed and lockdown from 5pm in Catamarca, the city Mattus recently moved to, Monaco seems a world apart.
“It will be a very hard tournament. We have been preparing for this, physically and mentally. But we must enjoy it as it will be the first outing in a long time.
“We will try to leave Argentina as high as possible. We have strong teams in our pool, such as Russia. Playing them will test us and let us know if we got better.”
Bongiorno adds: “Team preparation will be noticeable in the tournament and in Tokyo – type and quality of preparation. Russia and France have played hard tournaments against top opposition – in Madrid and Dubai. This makes them stronger.
Yet, for Mattus “the dream of going to Tokyo is alive. We will grow game-to-game. The goal is to advance to the final day and then it is one game at a time."
Her coach gives strength to that dream.
“This team worked at 120 per cent of its possibilities, without dropping their arms. We are aiming for a feat!
“Players know that feats exist. For that we have prepared. In order to achieve it, we’ll show that same sacrifice and commitment they showed in 2020.”
Photo credit: José Romelo Lagman/Rugby Americas
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