Trying times

 

Juggling professional rugby with a career in medicine hasn't been easy for Leinster and Argentina fly-half Dr Felipe Contepomi. Ronan McGreevyreports

FOR MOST mortals, being either a doctor or a world-class rugby player would be enough to be getting on with. Leinster and Argentina fly-half Dr Felipe Contepomi manages to combine both.

In between the playing, training, weights, video preparation and constant travelling that come with being a professional rugby player, together with the intense public scrutiny that it involves, he does volunteer shifts at Beaumont Hospital.

In the amateur era when rugby was a game for gentlemen and the professional classes, there were plenty of doctors in international rugby. The former rugby correspondent of this newspaper, Ned Van Esbeck, managed to pick an Irish XV composed solely of doctors.

It included Karl Mullen and Jack Kyle of the 1948 Grand Slam team, the former captain Niall Hogan and the British and Irish Lion John O'Driscoll. Wales's legend JPR Williams was also a noted medic.

The demands of the professional era mean that those who aspire to a career in the game will have to dedicate themselves full-time to the task, and most of those playing rugby at the highest level do nothing else.

Contepomi is a notable exception, though so too is his Argentinian colleague Rodrigo Roncero, also a qualified doctor, World Cup winner along with South African prop 'Jannie' du Plessis. The recently capped Welsh winger Jamie Roberts is studying for a medical degree while playing for Cardiff Blues and Wales.

It will come as something of a surprise to Leinster followers who knew vaguely that Contepomi had qualified as a doctor, but did not know that actually means a spot of double-jobbing.

"I am keeping my skills up to date. You can't leave your medicine from one day to another, but I'm not being paid. You can't have two jobs," he says.

The day job is his role as Leinster and Argentinian fly-half. He was the fulcrum of Leinster's Magners League win this year, and also Argentina's extraordinary third place finish in the World Cup finals last year, which included two memorable victories over hosts France, and a pummelling of a desperately poor Irish side.

Despite his profile, Contepomi sees himself as a doctor first and a rugby player second. "For me being a doctor is my life profession, it is like a passion for me. I see medicine as my real profession and rugby as my sport.

"Both are important to me at this stage, but I am here in Ireland to play rugby and it was what keeps me here."

Contepomi's links with Ireland extended back to his education at a rugby-playing Christian Brothers school in Buenos Aires.

There was no professional set-up in Argentina when he first began playing senior rugby, and he had four years of a medical degree over him when he began his professional career with Bristol 10 years ago.

He admits that an offer to allow him to complete his medical training at the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland (RCSI) was critical in his decision to sign for Leinster in 2003, a signing that has been greatly to the benefit of both parties.

He finally completed his degree last year receiving a Bachelor of Medicine, Surgery and Obstetrics (MB, BCh and BAO) from the RCSI.

Luckily his exams coincided with some quiet times in his hectic career as a professional rugby player. There were usually exams in March, during the Six Nations, when Argentina are not involved, and in June at the end of the rugby seasons.

Nevertheless, he still had to reschedule exams because rugby came first. "I had to repeat exams I did not fail in the first place. I had to get permission from the Royal College of Surgeons to do that.

"They and Leinster were great in facilitating me to fulfil both areas and the support of my wife and daughter was also important, but it was still long hours and not easy," he says.

Now aged 31, Contepomi has designs on work in orthopaedics when he finishes his rugby career, and he has no plans to be either a coach or manager.

His father is an orthopaedic surgeon in Argentina. It is a field where Contepomi is likely to encounter many sporting injuries. Rugby players are bigger, stronger and fitter than they have ever been, and so the chances of being badly injured are accentuated as Brian O'Driscoll found out during that infamous spear tackle which badly dislocated his shoulder.

As a doctor, Contepomi is more aware than his teammates of the potential risk involved in professional rugby, but it is a risk, he believes, worth taking.

"It is not something that really worries me. I don't wake up on Monday morning thinking what if? Touch wood nothing bad happens to me," he says.

"You can be walking down the street and something bad might happen. Obviously, it is a contact sport. You have higher risks, but many people who do medicine go and play football or rugby or skiing at the weekend and they might also get injured."

Contepomi has lent his profile this year to the annual Pfizer report into the health of the nation, the fourth of its kind. The Pfizer Health Index involves face-to-face surveys with 1,004 randomly chosen people over the age of 15.

This year the focus is on men and their health. Men are traditionally reluctant to talk about their health and just as reluctant to go to the doctor.

The figures provided by Pfizer suggest a growing level of indifference among men to their general health. The numbers asking if they wanted to have more information about health and wellbeing dropped from 67 per cent to 57 per cent, while those who would like more information about conditions they might be at risk of getting have fallen from 70 per cent to 62 per cent.

"I think men have a lot to look after and improve because sometimes we have that masculine pride. We think that illnesses won't touch us because we are strong, but that is not true. It is very important to keep on top of your health and do things to prevent illnesses along the way," he says.

"It is not that I don't think men pay much attention to their health, but there is a lot to improve in that. Every health issue is important and if I can do anything to help, I am willing do so," he says.

Contepomi says older men, in particular, should be encouraged to go for health screening procedures that are vitally important in preventing disease such as heart disease and cancer.

Understandably, as a professional sportsman, he is also encouraging men to take more exercise.

"It is not that I am only interested in the Pfizer campaign, but been helping in other health issues as well because I think all our health is important," he says. "In this case, it touches me very deeply because it is men's health we are talking about and I am a man and I'm directly involved."