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'Without the Munster fans, we are nothing. Without them, we play for nothing'

Freddie Pucciariello won two Heineken Cups and a Magners League with the southern province.

IN GLOUCESTER with Munster as the travelling reserve for their Heineken Cup quarter-final in 2008, Federico Pucciariello didn’t expect to play any part.

As was the norm then, he was flogged in a fitness session on the morning of the game at Kingsholm. Munster swiftly changed that habit after what happened next.

At 7.30am, Pucciariello headed to the gym with the Munster’s head of strength and conditioning, the late Paul Darbyshire, and went through what he recalls as “a massive, massive training session. Rowing, fitness, Crossfit, weights, everything.”

Thinking his work was done for the day, Pucciariello enjoyed breakfast and lunch before travelling to the stadium with Declan Kidney’s men.

“I was sitting down in the stand in my suit when the guys were warming up,” says Pucciariello, on the phone from Argentina. “I couldn’t move. I couldn’t fucking move my legs!”

federico-pucciarello-tackles-rory-lawson Pucciariello makes a tackle against Gloucester in 2008. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Suddenly, starting loosehead prop Marcus Horan was injured during the warm-up. Munster team manager Jerry Holland sprinted up the stand to tell Pucciariello he was needed to play, the Argentinian front row initially presuming it was a joke.

Pucciariello might have gone straight into the starting team but he wasn’t going to be ready for kick-off, so Tony Buckley was promoted from the bench. Pucciariello limped down to the changing room only to realise his gear bag was on Munster’s team bus, which was 2km away from the stadium due to the tight car park at Kingsholm.

So while a local policeman was sent to retrieve his bag – gumshield and boots in it – Pucciariello started to warm up in his socks down in the changing room.

By the time his boots arrived and he was properly warmed up, Munster were defending a five-metre scrum out on the pitch. 

“Get on, Freddie.”

Pucciariello trundled on in place of Buckley in the 28th minute and came face-to-face with Gloucester tighthead Carlos Nieto, his good friend and fellow Italy international. Indeed, Pucciariello has visited Nieto at his home the night before the game.

“What are you doing here?!” said Nieto.

“Don’t give me shit,” replied Pucciariello, “and you know you have to go backwards in this scrum!”

Somehow, Pucciariello found the energy reserves to help Munster fight off the Gloucester scrum, even winning a penalty. He eventually fell off the pitch in the 68th minute, utterly exhausted. Cruelly, he was then randomly selected for an anti-doping test after Munster’s 16-3 win.

“I had no fluid in my body,” laughs Pucciariello. “It took well over an hour to get the test done… That was a crazy day.”

federico-pucciariello-with-his-children Pucciariello with his sons after his final game for Munster in 2009. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Munster were on their way to their second Heineken Cup trophy that year, with Pucciariello featuring twice in that European campaign. Capable of playing on both sides of the front row, the Argentina native had four successful seasons with Munster from 2005 through to 2009, earning 85 caps and winning two Heineken Cups and a Magners League title.

He has extremely fond memories of his time living in Limerick, where his now 12-year-old son Bernardo was born.

“My son is Irish, he’s a Limerick guy,” says Pucciariello, who is the founder and president of Rosario Bioenergy – a company that Alan Quinlan, Doug Howlett, Ronan O’Gara, and Denis Leamy have all invested in.

Argentina is currently in a strict lockdown enforced by “army and police on the street” and Pucciariello says it’s a tough time for Bernardo and his 16-year-old brother, Martimo, who was born in Italy.

With Rosario Bioenergy’s production of biofuels seen as essential, Pucciariello has authorisation to leave his home and continue working but he happily welcomes the opportunity to reflect on his years with Munster.

It was Alan Gaffney who lured him to the province in 2005, having seen his Munster team dominated in the scrum in their quarter-final defeat to Biarritz that year. Pucciariello had watched that game with interest and, just a week later, his agent contacted him to say the Irish province were interested in him.

The prop, who was with Bourgoin in France at the time, had already met Toulouse boss Guy Noves about a possible move there but a two-night visit to Munster to stay with Gaffney convinced Pucciariello and his wife, Carlotta, that Ireland was for them.

The prop had learned his craft in his native Rosaria before a move to Italy in his early 20s to join Parma. Qualifying for Italy through his family, Pucciariello made his debut for the Azzurri in 1999 and played at that year’s World Cup, winning eight caps in total and even playing against his native Argentina in 2002.

On the club front, he spent the 2000/01 season with Narbonne in France, then had a year with Gloucester in England, before a three-season stint with Bourgoin. He earned a reputation as a superb scrummager, exactly the skillset Munster were looking for.

“They told me they needed to sort the scrummaging problem and they could be European champions,” says 44-year-old Pucciariello.

“I watched that 2005 semi-final back with Alan and afterwards with Deccie and there were six penalties against us at the scrum. A year later, we played the final against Biarritz and our scrummaging was amazingly good.

federico-pucciariello-celebrates-after-the-game Pucciariello celebrates the 2006 Heineken Cup win. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Actually, the try by Peter Stringer from a five-metre scrum was because we were pushing so hard, their back row couldn’t move.

“It was a complete turnaround. That wasn’t because of me, of course. I tried to bring into the team this mentality of Argentinian and French tougher scrummaging but we worked very, very hard – all of the front rows worked our bollocks off for a year and in the final, we were superior.”

Arriving in the summer of 2005, Pucciariello had quickly came to understand the pain the province had endured in the Heineken Cup.

“I didn’t realise the importance of the European Cup until I arrived to Munster,” says Pucciariello, who also loved his time playing for and coaching with Old Crescent RFC.

“At my French clubs, we were fighting to survive, not win the European Cup. It was a completely different mindset.”

The Pucciariellos were warmly welcomed and Freddie remains close friends with many of his team-mates from that time, still visiting Limerick once every year to meet them in person.

While others in Munster had gone through years of suffering in the Heineken Cup, Pucciariello picked up a winner’s medal at the first time of asking in 2006, impressing along the way as he started the 30-6 semi-final win over Leinster at Lansdowne Road.

“We did the trip to Dublin by train and on the way back, we had two full carriages of us and our families,” remembers Pucciariello. “A few beers, nothing mad because we knew there was still a storm ahead.”

Munster navigated their way through that final storm on an unforgettable day in Cardiff again Biarritz, when the Millennium Stadium was packed to the rafters with travelling Irish supporters. 

Pucciariello, who played the closing stages off the bench, remembers seeing the live link to the crowds back in Limerick flashing up on the big screen inside the stadium, but not understanding what was being shown.

“I didn’t realise until the end of the game. I thought it was outside the stadium! I was wondering why there were so many people still outside.

federico-pucciarello The Pucciariellos with the Heineken Cup. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Arriving to the stadium, it seemed like there were half a million Munster fans outside, the whole of Limerick, the whole of the Munster region.

“That’s one of the main strands in Munster, the fans. Without them, we are nothing. Without them, we play for nothing.

“There is so much passion. They never asked us for anything, they just gave us love and admiration. We owe them the same thing.”

While still in touch with most of his former Munster team-mates, Pucciariello misses two men who passed away in the years since.

Darbyshire died in 2011 after fighting Motor Neurone disease. It was “one of the saddest things in history,” says Pucciariello, “he was a great coach for us.”

And Anthony Foley died suddenly in Paris in 2016 before a Munster game, only months on from the 10-year reunion for the 2006 Heineken Cup-winning squad. Pucciariello and his family are close to the Foleys and he misses his friend dearly.

“Axel was my best captain be far. He was a guy who led by example. He never talked too much or too little. He always said things directly, honestly, frankly. 

“We couldn’t believe it, it was very hard. That’s the kind of thing you never find an explanation for.

“He was a 360-type of man, a lighthouse for everybody. He was so humble, working very hard all the time. He was some guy. His family is an amazing family, Olive is very strong and she shows us strength that no one thought was possible. It was so unpredictable what happened, so unfair.”

The memories on the pitch with Foley are happy ones, though.

Kidney’s squad had a voracious appetite for success and Pucciariello regrets that they didn’t win more in his four seasons with Munster, letting a few Celtic Leagues slip away and coming so close to beating the All Blacks at Thomond Park in 2008.

tony-buckley-denis-fogarty-and-federico-pucciariello-in-the-changing-room-with-the-magners-league-trophy Tony Buckley, Denis Fogerty, and Pucciariello after their 2009 Magners League win. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“You finish the Heineken Cup final in 2006 and you have that joy but Deccie always said one thing I remember: ‘A champion can only relax two times in his life – when he takes the trophy and when he’s dying.’

“It actually was like this even after winning. You have the joy for like 72 hours and then you’re thinking about the next season. It’s weird, it’s madness, but that’s how it was.”

After also playing for the Barbarians in 2007 and 2008, Pucciariello’s playing career ended with the 2009 Magners League title under Tony McGahan, “a fantastic way to finish.”

Having returned to Argentina and launched production with Rosario Bioenergy in 2010, Pucciariello is also now president of Jockey Club de Rosario, where it all started for him.

His sons play rugby, with Martimo an out-half and Bernardo – “big and tough” – looking destined for the back row when has to settle on a position.

Pucciariello has got great satisfaction from coaching and now being the president of his club, but nothing will match being the out there on the pitch, in the thick of it.

Playing for Munster was the pinnacle.

“Being the manager or coach is nice, but the best thing in this sport is to play,” says Pucciariello.

“I feel grateful for what I had. I met all these amazing people on the way, rugby has some special people.

“I have done all the things I wanted to do – played at a World Cup, played in the Six Nations, played in the Premiership, won two Heineken Cups and a Magners League, played for the Barbarians. I couldn’t have dreamed it would be any better.

“My first club in Europe, Parma, they taught me a lot and Munster was the best place.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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