Rugby legend Enrique TOPO Rodriguez is the only triple Rugby Union International player having represented Argentina, Australia and Tahiti. Most notably he was a member of the 1984 Grand Slam / 1986 Bledisloe Cup winning Wallaby teams. TOPO was kind enough to talk to me about all things rugby.
Name: Enrique TOPO Rodríguez
Place of birth: Concordia, Argentina
Positions: Tighthead prop and Loosehead prop
National teams represented: Argentina, Australia, Tahiti (1 invitational vs. France, 1981)
Caps: Pumas – 15, Wallabies – 26, Tahiti 1981 – 1
Total: 42 tests
How/Why did you start playing rugby?
Back in 1970 when I was in High School in Cordoba, Argentina I had a friend playing rugby, Alfredo Albrisi, who one day invited me to go and watch a game. I was very intrigued by the mechanics of the game and experience. The following year when I went to University I joined the Universidad Nacional de Cordoba RC out of curiosity (started playing as a winger).
Who was the greatest influence on your career?
I had three coaches that taught me a lot. In Cordoba with my 2nd club (Carlos Bassani, Tala RC coach); in Buenos Aires (Angel Guastella, Pumas’ coach); also in Australia (Alan Jones, Wallabies coach 84-87). I have learnt from the three just as much about rugby as about life.
Who was the toughest player you played against?
Iain Milne (Scotland) during the 1984 Grand Slam Tour, Iain also known as “the bear” was huge and very strong. Every scrum was a big struggle against him, I had to get very close to Tom Lawton my hooker to protect myself from the bear. Thankfully, being a big man running wasn’t his forte, so by the 75th minute I could start to breathe again.
Last November I went to a Midi Olympique organised function in Paris called “Oscars du Rugby”. Amongst the several categories they also celebrated “The Props” from many different eras and countries. Iain was one of 45 other guest props. I told him the above story and he kindly replied “that was one of the hardest games in my life too”
What was your favourite stadium to play in?
Twickenham has a special attraction, the size of it, the atmosphere, the people around the stadium on arrival. Lansdowne Road is the friendliest of them all. Ellis Park is so close to the action. The Wallabies beating the All Blacks in 2000 at the Sydney Olympic Stadium with a capacity crowd of 110.000 (before downsizing) is something impossible to forget.
What do you think are the biggest obstacles facing today’s game?
We have experienced “professionalism” for 15 years now, for some people in the rugby family it has been a steep learning curve, for others an enjoyable and well paid. I think as we see players, coaches and referees have embraced the new regime quite successfully. However, it appears to me a vast majority of administrators do not come from a “professional administration” background (meaning relevant tertiary/university education). In doing so it will equip them to properly understand what needs to be done, how and by whom in order to develop rugby harmoniously and successfully.
I feel big crowds get lured into rugby by different interests, but mostly for their “buying power” and not necessarily by the principles and values the game had 25 years ago. Conversely, membership retention continuous to be a serious problem for the administrators, a lot of people are disenfranchised by what they see and experience, these causes need to be addressed! In recent years the “corporate world” has made some incursions in rugby through sponsorship, endorsements, advertising, etc. but somehow these interests in recent times have waned, so a smarter approach is needed.
Furthermore, the old Pareto principle at play: the IRB takes 80% of the funds from the ”rugby market” only to serve 20% of the rugby population or less. A wider base of the pyramid is what produces a bigger top of it. I know my numbers above are a very optimistic guess. Those percentages also repeat with the Australian Rugby Union.
Remunerations should be in a way “rationalised”, I understand players’ useful life may have shortened but creating over-night millionaires does not help rugby and its family. Well paid players yes, but for the same token ignoring that money doesn’t grow on trees is unhealthy for the players and the whole community too. Player’s agents are one of the more difficult and at times poisonous influences in a team sport, they don’t obey to the team’s objectives in the contrary they have a very self-cantered attitude (both: agent + player)
Where would you like to see rugby in 10 years time?
I feel rugby should continue working on improving the numbers of people’s participation and also the quality of it. Women’s rugby needs to be discussing things on the same table as mens. Rugby itself is a great source of lessons for life when it comes to: teamwork, camaraderie, discipline, preparation, solidarity, overcoming adversity, physical and mental health promotion, etc. These values and intrinsic characteristics should be inculcated and promoted as some of the side benefits to participants and their families. Rugby needs to have a change of culture, becoming more INCLUSIVE as vs. EXCLUSIVE. This will get many more people involved and then rugby will be able to compete with any other sports fairly and squarely.
What are your thoughts on the current Super Rugby season?
After 5 rounds of Super 15, have not watched a lot but I can easily say this is the closest competition in long time. The majority of matches are finishing within 2, 4 or 5 points, this tells you those games could go either way. Obviously the recent win of the Bulls over the Reds was very unusual for what we have seen so far, but a well deserved win.
Do you have a favourite player / team?
Even though I’m Australian and I’m supposed to follow a team like Waratahs (NSW is my province and have played a number of games for) my selection will be based on: character, excellence, professionalism, results, career span, overcoming adversity, quality of players and coaches. So, must say the “Crusaders” are at the front of my pick and Benn Robinson the player to lead from the front.
You represented 3 countries during your rugby career, do you have a favourite moment from this time?
Sorry, can’t just give you one, it will be an injustice. With Argentina 1983 beating Australia 18-3 at Ballymore (2 pushover tries) it was historic for Argentina and in away probably started the foundations for my migration the following year. Incidentally, the 1984 Grand Slam of UK and Ireland was very especial and also 1986 Bledisloe Cup tour of NZ where we beat them 2-1 in the series. They certainly were 3 very proud moments in my career.
What was it like to play in the 1st ever Rugby World Cup in 1987?
Well it is somewhat strange that 25 years ago the RWC was organised a big cloud of scepticism, uncertainty, fear of the unknown. It was a huge effort enterprise of two countries (Australia and NZ) and the rest being witnesses and participants. From the players’ perspective we were excited to participate in the 1st ever RWC. And above all we were playing test-matches against several other countries, so we were fully aware of how important it was. At the end it, as Australians we experienced a very disappointing outcome because we finished 4th. The pride of having participated in the 1st Ever RWC is still something to reminisce with friends when visiting memory lane.
How are you enjoying life after rugby?
Retirement is a complex subject, not everybody is prepared for life after rugby. Things are very different off the field. Some find a future within coaching, others have a professional career to follow. Personally, I had a family with two kids that in a way helped me to find my “nadir”. This in turn guided me a bit in terms of work, etc. Nonetheless, in my case a few years later I had to contend with a new difficulty/reality presented in the form of “bipolar disorder diagnosis”. This turned my life upside down, several years in denial, then medicated and with therapy. I had to learn a new world order for me and my life. The reality of mental illness is very difficult to the individual and his/her family. A lot of adjustments needs to be made, albeit not impossible.
In 2007, Neil Cole wrote a play based on your, life what was it like to see it all being played out on stage?
Around 2006 when Neil approached me to write the play I’ve already been diagnosed for 10 years. Also have been speaking on mental health at different forums (as a Consumer Advocate myself) for some 4 years, so I thought was somehow prepared for it. Obviously “Topo” the play had a lot of messages for the public particularly in regards to mental health issues. When everything came together and it was first read out in a rehearsal it was very tough because it was like having an autopsy of my brain and life in public. At the same time it was a cathartic experience which helped me to deal with a number of unresolved issues from the past. One very positive thing it came out of it was: four months later with a group of friends I set up the BIPOLAR Education Foundation which I’ve been running since 2007. We provide bipolar education services to the community. www.bipolar-edu.org
Do you think players are prepared enough for life/career after rugby?
I believe these days the National Unions or the Players’ Associations/Unions do take active involvement in protecting their members. Have read some bit and pieces where there are development programs in place that leads them on to improving their chances in future careers. It is pretty normal these days that those organisations look after them through different initiatives. I’m sure in Europe and other countries it is the case. Since there is a fair bit of money around this rugby business, the providers and authorities have a vested interest in ensuring the present and future of their “assets”. Yet, the responsibility should not be shifted from the individuals in questions.
Are you still involved with rugby?
Have been forwards/scrum coach of the Australian U-21 in 1995. Until a few years ago have been a Scrum Consultant to different clubs in Sydney (on request). Back in 1996 I started writing a Scrum Technical Manual for Coaches. Tried to publish it several times but I was unable to for different reasons so put it in the back burner. During 2010 seeing the problems that have developed globally with scrummaging I decided to revisit the subject to make it bigger and better. So I recommenced the writing to update it and to address those current problems. I also invited a writer and an editor to help me in putting together a comprehensive manual that would look at a scrum from under a microscope. Have re-named it: “The ART of Scrummaging”and it is very close to be completed. A 16 page synopsis can be downloaded from: www.toporodriguez.com