Rugby World Cup
Uruguay savour their finest hour, even in defeat
Tristan Barclay
September 21, 2015
Wales and Uruguay emerge from the Millennium Stadium tunnel
Wales and Uruguay emerge from the Millennium Stadium tunnel© Dan Mullan/Getty Images

How special does it feel to take part in a Rugby World Cup?

Until Saturday, there would have been little point in asking any of Uruguay's 31-strong squad. To a man, the Pool A defeat at the hands of Wales was a new experience for them. None had a single World Cup cap to his name.

That might not come as much of a surprise when you learn that Uruguay's last appearance at a World Cup was in 2003, but for a team of mostly amateurs, kicking off the tournament at a raucous Millennium Stadium must have been the stuff of dreams.

Given that Japan had caused the biggest upset in rugby history by beating South Africa in Brighton just 24 hours earlier, perhaps Uruguayan fans -- there were a few in the stadium -- dared to dream even bigger as their side took a 6-0 lead in a cagey opening 10 minutes.

The natural order of things was soon restored via a Samson Lee try, and Wales would eventually run in seven more to thrash the minnows 54-9, but Uruguay head coach Pablo Lemoine insisted his side had reason to be proud of their efforts in defeat.

"We take purely positive things, there is no negative pressure," he said. "This is the first time at a World Cup for all of the players, and for them to play in front of such a large crowd. They are used to playing in front of 2,000 people and not 70,000, so there is nothing negative for us. For us it's a game, but a tough game."

"Our players were in Japan 20 days ago, and we feel that if they can do it [win a match at the World Cup] then we can. They have very good players, and their victory will inspire all of the second-tier countries."

Uruguay's last World Cup match was a cricket-score defeat by England at Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium in 2003. The eventual champions put 111 points on them, with Josh Lewsey running in five tries.

Wing Santiago Gibernau was only 15 when his predecessors suffered such humiliation, but he told ESPN that the current crop of Uruguayans have only ever been looking forward to the next game. That is, until now.

"As a team, we have always been talking about 'what's next?'," he said. "Playing here is what was next. There is nothing bigger. We came onto the pitch to give 100 percent of ourselves and in the first half we felt really good. We hoped maybe to lose by a few points less, but the experience is always good.

"When I was younger I dreamed about being a footballer, but then a friend introduced me to rugby and taught me what it really was. Now we've been in the Welsh dressing room having some drinks and talking about the match. This is great, now to be involved in this and being around these guys all the time."

Wales' World Cup squad boasts eight players with over 50 caps, and several others in the high 40s. Hooker Gethin Jenkins already has 15 World Cup appearances, dating back to 2003. Uruguay, by contrast, have just one player with a half-century of caps.

However, even as one of the team's senior statesmen, front-rower Carlos Arboleya admitted to feeling a little stunned when he ran out under the Millennium Stadium roof for his World Cup debut.

"It was indescribable," he told ESPN. "You can't name a venue better than the Millennium Stadium. In a World Cup against Wales, in the first match of the World Cup, that's like the best storyline you can find.

"It's been 12 years since Uruguay was last in the tournament. I'm going to save the best day of my life for the birth of my child, but it was the best rugby day of my life for sure."

That was a sentiment shared by every Uruguay player who mingled with the media in the post-match mixed zone. With apologies to France (and Italy and Argentina), the language of rugby is English, but speaking through a translator it was clear just how much the occasion meant to Uruguay centre Joaquin Prada.

"It was the biggest game I have played in my life," he told ESPN. "The environment here has been unforgettable and a unique experience because we have never played in such a big stadium.

"To sing the anthem in a stadium like this was unforgettable, and we have felt a lot of warmth from the Welsh public. It was very loud and the experience was amazing."

Of course this was just the first match of four in Uruguay's latest World Cup adventure. If they were to make it through the pool of death to secure a fifth fixture in the tournament, that would surely rank up there as one of the biggest upsets in the history of sport, let alone rugby. But Gibernau, who plays the game back home for the rugby arm of Carrasco Polo Club, insisted his teammates were raring to go for their clash with Australia next weekend.

"I've been in the Rugby 7s World Cup in Dubai, but this tournament is the top for all the players," he said. "Now we will go and hear from the coach about what we have to work on next. This week will be important for us because we have so many guys eager to play, but we are all feeling really good."

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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