27 might be seen as slightly old for a first professional rugby contract, but for Colombian speedster Jhon Arley Urrutia, and a generation of Tucanes, the hope is that they will be offered one as soon as the Superliga Americana de Rugby will feature a Colombian team for the first time in 2021.
That team, Cafeteros Pro, are awaiting the arrival of new coach Rodolfo Ambrosio, the architect of Brazil’s incredible international rise over the last decade. The Argentina-born former Italian international, who played in the first-ever Rugby World Cup game in 1987, will soon arrive to find 30 players vying for the 20 available places for the Superliga Americana, which starts in March.
As soon as the coach can travel to Medellín, the country’s rugby hotbed, he will see first-hand the hard work being completed by the rugby community throughout Colombia. With 10 players drafted from Argentina, the best of those in preparation throughout the country will be selected by Ambrosio to receive their first professional contracts in what will be a milestone moment for Colombia's growing rugby scene.
Having picked up the game in Apartadó, a city in Colombia's northeast, Urrutia was spotted and invited to Medellín, where his speed – he is considered by many to be the fastest player in South America – soon brought him to the national sevens and test scene in 2014.
Colombian rugby was showing signs of rapid growth when Urrutia joined its international ranks: “We worked extremely hard to with the Sudamericano B, beating the likes of Peru and Venezuela regularly. Once we outgrew them, our focus was Paraguay," he says. Colombia has now not lost to the Paraguayan Yacarés in the last three years.
Rugby World Cup 2031 in their sights
“Our goal is not to beat Argentina, but to start to win against Brazil and Chile. We want to take a step at a time.”
With Rugby World Cup 2023 qualifiers set for June, the Superliga Americana de Rugby will give the five regional sides ample opportunities to put themselves in the best position to qualify. Colombia’s goal is set on RWC 2031. An important stepping stone on that journey will be their performance in the Superliga Americana de Rugby.
“Initially, in 2019 the Superliga Americana de Rugby was being spoken of with the possibility of either getting contracts with other teams or playing in our own team,” Urrutia tells World Rugby.
“It was of course a great opportunity that we all wanted to chase, but unfortunately COVID-19 intervened.”
Cafeteros Pro were set to play two matches at the end of the inaugural season in 2020, but the pandemic forced the tournament to be postponed with only three games played. This year, the tournament will be played by its six participating teams within COVID-19 bubbles across two cities that remain unconfirmed.
Places up for grabs
“We are all training hard to make the squad. Everyone here wants to be in the team and it is noticeable by the intensity and the commitment of all involved," says Urrutia.
“Everything has changed with the game here. Sport is important in the country and football is the sport of choice when pursuing a livelihood. Now rugby can be that.”
Urrutia is completing his accountancy studies ("accountancy is fun!" he says) and receives stipends from the regional sports authority, Deportes Antioquia, for playing in the provincial team. It helps make ends meet, but for him it's not enough.
“Rugby helps, but I need to adapt with what I have. I am putting a lot of emphasis on my studies as that will be there when rugby finishes.”
The impact of having a professional team in Colombia, where professional sport is limited to football, cycling and a couple of basketball and baseball leagues, is huge.
“Rugby becoming professional can change a lot in my country. It will raise awareness. It can change lives.”
How rugby is changing lives in Colombia is well documented, with a number of players escaping the claws of crime and drugs thanks to their involvement with the game.
Urrutia, whose girlfriend is Laura Diosa, a Youth Olympic Games representative in 2018 and fully-fledged Tucán, says: “I am an example of how lives can change thanks to rugby. Rugby is family, it is leaving the street, the ‘comuna’ where you meet danger.”
As Urrutia says: "one step at a time".