20 Dec Juan Figallo
Juan Figallo was introduced to rugby at a young age when he would watch his father play for Jockey Club de Salta.
“Back in Argentina, on Saturday you go to the club in the morning,” says Figallo. “The young kids play first and at the end of the day the first team plays – you spend the whole day at the club.”
At the age of four Figallo was allowed to start playing, and the lessons the coaches instilled in the children have stuck with the 33-Test international to this day.
“When you’re that age you just want to get the ball and score tries and that’s it,” the prop said.
“But the coaches would stop us. You couldn’t score a try until the ball had been passed three or four times. That taught us not only about the value of sharing with your team-mates, but that it’s not your try, it’s a team effort.
“So at four years old we were learning those values. At that time you don’t see those values as important, but for life they are.”
Over the years Figallo inherited his father’s talent and love of the game, and then also took on his nickname.
“People used to call my dad Chipi. It is a cartoon dragon that makes jokes and people used to call him that because he was funny.
“At the beginning I was Chipi junior, and then I became Chipi and he became Chipi’s dad!”
Figallo left Argentina to play for Montpellier in the Top 14 in 2009, and is now with double champions Saracens as a seasoned international with three World Cups under his belt. Figallo says the downside of being away from home is tempered by the bonds you make through the game.
“I think I am who I am because of my family and because of what rugby gave me. All the values of my club in Argentina really touched me and made me as a person.
“I left the country when I had just turned 20 but I think all the values I had, I took with me through my career and I still have those values today.
“You feel part of a family. If you don’t have any family, this is your family now; you can rely on the people who are playing with you or coaching you.”
It was those values that made Figallo want to become an ambassador with the Atlas Foundation, with a focus on developing projects in Argentina.
“For me it’s a way for me to give back all the good things I got from rugby. I really love this sport and truly believe it’s a good way to help people to get into these values.
“Not just to have those values when playing rugby, but for life.”
At the end of last month Figallo joint-hosted an evening for the Atlas Foundation along with Renato Carlos Sersale di Cerisano, the Argentine ambassador to the UK who kindly offered up his official residence as the venue.
“Carlos is a huge fan of rugby,” says Figallo. “I met him when I was playing for Argentina in South Africa in 2012. He was the ambassador there at the time and he invited all the team to have a barbecue with him – that was the first time I met him.
“Then a few years ago he moved to London and we started chatting again. Then Atlas came up and he was the first to say he wanted to help. He offered his house to do the events we did last season and this season. He also hosted a lunch in my first ever Atlas event.
“He’s been really good. He loves rugby and also I think he is the same as me in that he believes rugby can truly help people.”
The ambassador has been a great champion of the game in Argentina as well as for Atlas, and at the event in November, Chipi formally asked him to be an ambassador for the Atlas Foundation in Argentina.
“He is going to retire soon, and when he does he is going to go back to Argentina,” said Figallo.
“He’s going to continue his legacy of helping Atlas, so he will forever be an ambassador for us. We are going to let him settle in, then we are going to put him to work!”
There were several famous faces at the event, including Argentina legend Hugo Porta, Atlas champion Les Cusworth, and Figallo’s Saracens team-mate Mako Vunipola – who Chipi says is eager to help the Atlas Foundation set up new projects.
“I started talking to Mako about Atlas and he was really keen,” said Figallo. “The idea is to get him and his family involved so that Atlas can go and start a project in Tonga.
“He has family there, and they know people. It’s a lot easier to get into the community or different places when you know someone and can trust someone.
“Like me, he wants to give back at home.”
During the event Mako and Chipi both spoke, after which the audience were invited to ask questions. One question, from someone with a distinctly antipodean accent, was: “Why does everyone hate Australians?”
The pair looked at each other in silence before Chipi finally responded: ”No habla inglés (I don’t speak English).”
Reminded of the exchange afterwards, Figallo chuckles and says: “Yeah, it’s not a question you want to have to answer, is it? Well not at a charity event anyway!”
Written by Keith Moore