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IN-DEPTH: Gaston Cortes - Trucking, Rucking And Living The Dream

Gaston Cortes has come a long way since the days of 12-hour shifts behind the wheel of lorry - and now, five years down the line the prop says he feels like ‘the luckiest man alive’ to be playing rugby professionally.

The Argentine was a driver for his father’s haulage company in Córdoba, a city located in the geographical centre of Argentina - alongside training and playing part-time for Córdoba Athletic - before a 7,000 mile trip across the North Atlantic saw him join Liam Middleton’s Bristol on a nine-month deal in 2012.

“I feel like the luckiest man alive, I really do,” says Cortes. “To be a rugby player and make a living by playing rugby; I really appreciate the position I am in here and feel privileged.

“Back in Argentina and before I joined Bristol, I worked as a lorry driver for my father’s business from about 23 to 26. I was doing 12 hours in the lorry and then stopping half way through to do a gym session.

“But I played for Argentina in the South American Cup and the Nations Cup in Romania and after that, Liam (Middleton) called me and said ‘if you want to come, you’re welcome’. I went straight away because I wanted to be a professional rugby player all of my life and it was a dream come true.

“It was only for nine months, my first contract, so I thought I’d give it a go and see what happens.”

SHUNTED: Gaston Cortes in action against Leicester Tigers at Ashton Gate (Photo: JMP UK). 

The rest is history - and one full of dominant scrummaging and bulldozing carries from a player who has quickly become a favourite with the fans at Ashton Gate.

Cortes believes the years spent driving HGVs, rather than scrums and mauls, have given him a solid foundation in life - and the 31-year-old has been quick to point his younger sibling in the right direction.

“I’ve got a little brother and I tell him, ‘you have to study first’”, he says. “I’m not a good example, because I didn’t, but I told him he has to study first and then see what happens with the rugby.

“You can focus just on rugby, but then get injured in your next session and then that’s you off.”

“I feel lucky because I have worked outside of rugby and know it can be hard. But I am a rugby player and I can get food for my family by playing rugby.

“When I first moved here it was different for me, because in Argentina it was amateur rugby and I worked before training – now I’m full time and it’s completely the opposite.”

FAMILY GUY: Cortes celebrates a home victory over Worcester Warriors with his son (Photo: JMP UK). 

The move was a huge change for Cortes, who admits the first year of his West Country journey was an extremely testing one. Unfamiliar surroundings and a language barrier were just two of challenges facing the then 27-year-old, who says he now ‘feels at home’ in Bristol.

“I think my first year was really tough because I was on my own. They were really tough days – after training I had nothing to do because I didn’t know the city and I struggled with the language as well.

“But the second year, my missus came over and it was happy days. We’ve now got a young family now and it’s so good to have my missus and my son in Bristol.

“Bristol is a great place and I love it. It’s quite a small city but at the same time, there’s a lot to do. I feel very comfortable here now and like I’ve lived here for a long time.”

Cortes is now part of an illustrious list of Argentinian players to have graced the famous blue and white hoops and says the calibre of his fellow countrymen has left him with a lot to live up to.

“When I got here I met Sambu (Mariano Sambucetti), who was here for nine years I think - and I think it was 1998 when Pichot joined Bristol. So it’s a lot of pressure because they were all such good players for the club.”

However, it’s a billing the Argentine is certainly living up to and he has already played his own part in some memorable moments for the club. A long-awaited promotion back to the Premiership also saw Cortes named in the Championship team of the season, although that’s a topic the tight head is quick to play down.

“When we won the Championship last year, that’s my favourite moment since I’ve been here. But I can remember as well, when we played the last game at the Memorial Stadium against London Welsh. I can’t describe how frustrating it was but how happy I was to play in that game, because the crowd and the Bristol support, they’re mental and I love that.

“It was an honour to be in the team of the season, but to be honest, people think the scrums is all about the front three but we are a pack; it’s about the second row, the number eight and the flankers as well. I feel really proud about it, but it’s all about teamwork. In Argentina we love scrums; you can see that clearly.”

HAPPY DAYS: Max Crumpton joins Gaston Cortes for promotion celebrations in May 2016 (Photo: JMP UK). 

From being a star performer in English rugby’s second tier, Cortes admits the Premiership has been a hugely challenging experience and insists he is still learning both on and off the field.

If he can match the dominance and prowess shown in the Championship, Cortes could well find himself adding to his four international caps in a Pumas side that is going from strength to strength. But for now, his focus is firmly on the challenge ahead and helping Bristol to retain their top-flight status.

“Playing in the Premiership is like learning to play the game again. You play against international players and it’s quick and tough. But you never stop learning, it’s always a time to learn.

“If I say I’m not interested in playing for Argentina I lie because I would love to play for Argentina and I think everyone loves to play for their country and everyone in Argentina is very proud of their country.”

Scrums, mauls, lorries – driving is in Gaston Cortes’ make up and both he and the Bristol faithful will be hoping he can help steer his side to Premiership safety.

By Will Carpenter.