In 2002, in the qualifying process for Australia 2003, USA, Canada, Uruguay and Los Cóndores competed for two places, with the third-placed team going through to the Final Qualification Tournament. Chile beat Uruguay at home but then lost every other game, home and away, including a final loss against a Uruguayan side containing Pablo Lemoine.
In every other qualifying process, they fell at the same hurdle: Los Teros.
Fast forward 21 years and the former prop Lemoine is now leading the resurgence of Chilean rugby.
“When Pablo arrived in late 2018, we began to have hope,” says Chile captain Martín Sigren, after beating Canada for the first time ever and advancing to play for Rugby World Cup 2023's Americas 2 place in.
“He had done something similar in his country; he was very direct and straight to the point. He told us it would not be a road of roses.”
Lemoine learnt the game at the Montevideo Cricket Club and became the first Uruguayan to play professional rugby – first with Bristol, later a French champion with Stade Français, Montauban and Valence d’Agen. Having retired from test rugby after a 48-test, 14-year career, he returned home and headed his country’s introduction to High Performance.
“He told us to be certain that it would be very hard and that he needed total commitment from players, staff and the Chilean Federation," says Sigren. "Two years later, we’ve turned 180 degrees.”
Lemoine’s arrival in Chile raised a few eyebrows – could their former tormentor become their saviour?
“I remember those early days and how we had to convince everybody about what needed to be done in order to be competitive,” explains Lemoine. There might have been a couple of uncomfortable meetings with former opponents, but the buy-in from players was crucial and the rest soon rallied behind the project.
“I had been to Chile many times, as a player and coach, and knew that they had the potential. As things were when I arrived, qualification was through the Americas Rugby Championship. We knew that we had to get better in every aspect.”
After only winning two games in the first four seasons of the ARC the task was huge, but Lemoine has a personality to move and shake things up.
“Fitness, an aggressive game approach, defence, skills – everything,” he says.
With Sigren, the Saavedra twins, Matías Dittus, the injured Ignacio Silva, Alfonso Escobar (whose father captained Chile against Lemoine) and many others leading the way, the dream began to take shape.
His first two tests in charge in November 2018, against Sudamérica XV and the Maori All Blacks, resulted in big losses; 2019 wasn’t much better.
Wheels in motion
The wheels were already in motion when COVID-19 hit the world. As soon as it was possible, with a government dispensation, players were back at their training headquarters.
“The dream of going to a RWC was our goal once they understood they needed to do the hard work,” says Lemoine.
Sigren adds: “It was such a hard road, one with more losses than wins, but that was 100 per cent worthwhile. Even my family doubted what we were doing.”
Families were invited to join the team the week before the second test against Canada, having shared the long, hard road. “They were crucial in the support of our players,” added Lemoine.
“We convinced ourselves that we had to believe," says Sigren. "It was about the body and the mind. How to handle pressure and work in a High Performance environment.”
All of this preparation needed match practice and the Superliga Americana de Rugby was crucial. Chile produced one of the six franchises, Selknam.
“It was trial and error, getting our preparation better with each game. We accelerated our HP programme, technically and tactically we had 10 games to grow.”
Having narrowly lost the opportunity to play for Americas 1 against Uruguay, it was a do or die against Canada. Lemoine and his experienced staff saw chinks in the Cannucks' armour, understanding that defence would be crucial in Langford. They came within seconds of their first win against the men from the north.
The series was to be decided at home and Chile moved fast to organise their travel to and from in order to have players as rested as humanly possible.
“We changed the mental chip. We learnt,” says Sigren. “To close the series at home was superb.”
Chile's place at France 2023 is not yet confirmed – they will need to beat USA in a series next year. And if that is not to be, there is the Final Qualification Tournament.
“We want to win next year and qualify as Americas 2,” states Lemoine. “We need to step it up but players know what the prize is. They can feel it closer.”