Our plan to photograph Julian Montoya in an Argentina football shirt has fallen through. We have spent half of the morning talking about Lionel Messi lifting the World Cup in Qatar but his jersey is out of stock in the local sports shop.
‘It’s good that everywhere has sold out because it shows the team are in touch with the people. We want to do the same in rugby,’ says the Pumas captain, who will lead out his team against England on Saturday night.
‘The way the football team connect with the country is amazing. When Messi plays he inspires the rest of the team but it wasn’t just about one player. In the awards, Argentina had the best player, best coach, best goalkeeper… best crowd!
‘It’s a meritocracy. You see their process – doing things correctly, effort, trusting each other – and you think, “We want to be like them”. People were selling their cars or re-mortgaging their houses just to go and see them play.
‘Argentina was not in a very good place in terms of its economy. When five million people came out to the streets of Buenos Aires to cheer together, all with a smile on their face, it didn’t matter which political party they support. It was just happiness. It’s not normal to see that. When you see it, you want to chase it.’
Argentina captain Julian Montoya hopes to take inspiration from the country’s football team ahead of their Rugby World Cup opener against England on Saturday
Lionel Messi inspired the side to glory at the football World Cup in Qatar and Montoya hopes they can take a page out of their book
Sipping on a coffee at his local café in Market Harborough, he continues: ‘They inspired us. When you speak about the colours, white and sky blue, we are all aiming for the same thing.
‘Trusting each other, having a good plan, process, effort. We trust our system and our coach. When you see all of those values being reflected, the chance of victory is way better.’
Montoya watched the final with his wife, Sole, in their living room in Leicestershire. He reminisces about watching Diego Maradona singing and dancing in the Pumas changing room at the 2015 World Cup, before the conversation turns to the job at hand.
Patriotism and passion has always been a part of Argentina’s DNA but they now have a base layer of pragmatism. The national coach, Michael Cheika, describes Montoya as one of the most focused players he has ever worked with. No corners are cut under their talismanic leader.
Their error rate is low and their conversion rate in the 22 has been one of the highest in the world in 2023. They are no longer regarded as underdogs for this weekend’s match in Marseille.
For Montoya, it will be a showdown with plenty of familiar faces – including his old Leicester coaches – but it is all about the collective. Will his team take confidence from their victory over England at Twickenham back in November?
‘That was our first win after 16 years,’ he says. ‘It was a big win. For this group of players, we’ve talked about doing ‘firsts’.
‘For this group, it was our first victory over England at Twickenham and of course that gives you confidence. It was a great memory.
Montoya was born in Buenos Aires and is at pains to admit he is not from a farming background – despite appearing at a shoot at a cattle field
The 29-year-old is refusing to give up on his dream of winning the World Cup with Argentina
Montoya knows many of the England players having seen them up close while playing for the Leicester Tigers
‘I have really good friends in the England team who I like a lot, but once it starts I have no more friends there. Ellis Genge, Ben Youngs, Freddie Steward. During that period of time they are not my friend and not my team-mates, they are just England players. After the game, great.
‘Steve will be there, Kev will be there, Richard Wigglesworth, Aled Walters. They’re amazing coaches. They’re smart and they will come with a tactical plan. People always talk about England’s set piece and kicking game.
‘We played that way at Leicester and we had good results. Those things are key. I respect them as people and as coaches but it’s not about them and it’s not about me. It’s about us playing together against England.’
The English will know all about Montoya’s individual threats. The question is whether they can stop them. He jackals, scrums, hits his lineouts and dominates collisions. He brings a level of intensity that England are yet to get anywhere near under Borthwick.
Leicester may be Montoya’s adopted home but his heart lies in Buenos Aires. The capital city has been the life supply for Argentina rugby over the years but times are changing.
The sport is growing and that is reflected by the fact the Pumas are no longer the underdogs. Back in 2007, just four of Argentina’s squad were from outside of Buenos Aires. Now there are 24.
‘When you pull on the jersey for the national team, you represent everyone from north to south to east to west,’ he says. ‘Years ago, most of the guys were from Buenos Aires but now it’s all around the country. Our squad has guys from all over the country. North to south. People from different clubs.
‘Our amateur clubs are everything. I would love to play for my amateur club again one day. My brothers still play for Newell’s. That’s where we fall in love with the sport.’
Steve Borthwick’s side are on a torrid run of form while Argentina are dreaming of glory
He is at pains to point out that he is not from a farming background as we stop for an alternative photoshoot in a cattle field, on the drive back to the train station.
‘Marcos Kremer is a farmer, not me! We have guys from Cordoba to Tucuman to Mendoza to Santa Fe to Mar del Plata. It’s amazing. Rugby is in all parts of the country now and that’s good for the national team. We have people from all different backgrounds but we are all part of the same thing.
‘I don’t care who is wealthy, who is poor, who is fat, who is thin. I want to play for him and he wants to play for me. You represent people who don’t even know about rugby. We are very passionate about what we do and we care about what we do. We don’t believe in short cuts or excuses. We do the best we can so we can put our head on the pillow and sleep quietly.’
England are the team having sleepless nights, desperately searching for form. Argentina, meanwhile, are dreaming of following in the footsteps of their footballing compatriots. So does he believe it’s a possibility?
‘If I sit here and say, “No I don’t believe we can do it” then I couldn’t be doing my job. I’m very lucky to do what I love. But we know that it’s one step at a time. In the World Cup, every game is important and the first game is important. We have our dreams and our objectives but the only way is step by step.’