We all know how big a sporting country Argentina is. Sports seem to be like a second religion to the Argentine people. Football is still the most popular, as it is with nearly all of South America. It is the sport where they have had most success on the world stage, with their national team winning numerous World Cups, Copa Americas, etc. They’ve produced some of the world’s best players with the likes of Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero rated among the top stars in football today. But, arguably their greatest idol would have to be Diego Maradona. A man who would go onto win virtually everything in football at the time and is worshiped like a god. Argentina have and still are competing at the highest levels in many other sports like basketball, tennis and even sailing, but it’s in rugby union that they are now making real headway across the globe.
Pumas Rugby Purring Like Never Before
Since the first game of rugby was introduced to Argentina in 1873, it has struggled to provide healthy competition for football in the country. Whenever Argentina made an impact on the rugby field, football managed to outshine their rugby counterparts on almost every occasion. Whether it was an historic victory over a top tier nation or if it was for stand out performances by individual players, Rugby has, more often than not, always stood in the shadow of football.
Take Hugo Porta for example, who would become Argentina’s first truly world class player. He was at the forefront of many top displays by Los Pumas throughout the 70’s and 80’s. However, around the same period, Maradona was setting the world alight on the football pitch. While Porta was leading the Pumas to some historic victories against the likes of France, England and Australia, with a draw against the All Blacks for good measure, Maradona was guiding Argentina to World Cup glory. Argentina’s progression as a rugby nation was also halted by the simple fact that football was a professional sport and rugby union was still only in its amateur status. When the pro era for rugby came around though, Los Pumas saw this as the ideal opportunity to change the perception of the sport in their country.
Having failed to make any inroads at the three previous tournaments, the 1999 Rugby World Cup would be Argentine rugby’s time to shine. As it was the first Rugby World Cup to be held in the professional era, the Pumas were keen to impress. Argentina made it to the quarter-finals for the first time in their history, with the highlight being their stunning 28-24 victory over Ireland in the pool stages. They would go onto play France in the quarters, which would prove a step too far as they were eliminated from the competition.
In 2003, they met Ireland again in the pool phases, but the Irish got their revenge by defeating Los Pumas and preventing them from even making the quarter finals this time around. Argentina was keen to learn from these losses.
In the lead up to the 2007 World Cup, they were building a very strong squad of players, led by the vastly experienced Agustin Pichot. With a core leadership group in key areas in both the forwards and backs and having players who have had experienced World Cup campaigns before, this was to be Argentina’s chance to make a big statement on the grandest stage of them all. With the tournament held in France, the vast majority of the Argentina squad didn’t need the requirement of having to familiarize themselves with the surroundings as most were already playing their club rugby in France.
The opening game had Los Pumas pitted against hosts’ France who were expected to put on a show for their fans and win the game convincingly. Argentina had other ideas however. Having gone in at halftime with a 17-9 lead, the Pumas held onto record a famous win of 17-12, and made world rugby to sit up and take notice. They went onto back up that performance with victories against Georgia and Namibia before securing a 30-15 win over Ireland in their final pool match to guaranty top spot in the pool.
Another quarter-final lay in wait for Argentina and it was the chance for them to show how much they have learned from tournaments past. Scotland was their opponents on this occasion. They won a tight contest in the end, but they had shown that they were ready for the next step and progressed to the semi-finals for the first time. Their remarkable run came to an abrupt halt in the semis, as they met a determined South African outfit, who would go onto win the tournament a week later. The memories that were created by the Pumas in the tournament will be remembered fondly, highlighting the extremely talented individuals they had at their disposal. Players such as Juan Martin Hernandez (nicknamed ‘the magician’), who would go onto produced some breathtakingly magical moments throughout the competition.
Progress had been made, but like many, Argentina struggled to build on their progression. Their performance levels had dropped dramatically over the next couple of years and by the time the 2011 Rugby World Cup arrived, they had very little momentum heading into that tournament.
Even though they made it to another quarter-final of a World Cup, their displays in the group phases were shabby to say the least and were just scrapping over the line in getting the results they wanted. As they were riding their luck so frequently, it was all to change as they came up against the hosts’ and eventual champions New Zealand in the quarters. Having never beaten the All Blacks, it was highly unlikely that it was going to happen at that stage, and so it proved. New Zealand beat Argentina 33-10 and Los Pumas were packing their bags and heading home again.
The lack of competitive match-ups with quality opposition was Argentina’s main reason as to why they were unable to make decent developments on a consistent basis. The Argentina Rugby Union’s persistence in trying to find solutions to these issues, paid off. They were offered the chance to join the Tri Nations competition, which would go on to be renamed The Rugby Championship as there’s more than three teams involved. As the competition contained the top three teams in world rugby in New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, Los Pumas knew it was going to take patience in finding their feet in new surroundings and it was very much a work in progress. 2012 was to be the dawning of a new age for Argentinian rugby. It was the chance to pit themselves against the ‘Big Three’.
The first two campaigns was a steep learning curve for the Pumas, as they were unable to win any of their matches in The Rugby Championship in 2012 and 2013. A lot of doubters, including myself, were beginning to question whether or not it was the right decision to join a tournament containing three of the premier sides world rugby had to offer. The fact that they hadn’t won a single game in the two year period that the competition had been running, uncertainty began to grow around the rugby universe. But, 2014 would see Argentina change the record and in doing so, change the view of mine and the majority of the rugby public.
Los Pumas achieved their first triumph in the competition, beating Australia 21-17 on home soil in Mendoza. Despite finishing bottom of the tournament, real progress had been made. They defeated one of the best sides in the world and in doing so, brought about a realization to everyone that they can compete with these types of teams and provide competition of the highest level. In the games against New Zealand and South Africa, the Pumas were proving a more difficult side to play against. They started to give their more inexperienced players opportunities to show what they could do on the international stage and this helped to build some decent depth in their overall squad.
What we also saw develop with the Argentinians was their style of play, as they showed an all-round, more exciting brand of rugby with skill and pace, which was testing for the other sides in the competition. Argentina has always been known for their strengths in the forward pack and in particular, the scrum. However, the Pumas knew they had to offer more to the game than a dominant scrum for them to compete with the ‘Big Three’. They had to play in a more attacking and threatening manner that was similar to the other sides in the competition.
The addition of former All Blacks World Cup winning head coach, Graham Henry for a brief spell, was evident enough of how Argentina were willing to make huge strides to improve as a rugby nation. It gave them a chance to get an insight into what’s needed to challenge at the top level and it’s a decision they will look back on and say how vital it was that they took the opportunity to speak to one of the most knowledgeable minds in the game.
Bigger and better achievements were accomplished in this year’s Rugby Championship. Argentina claimed a first ever win over South Africa as they finished the competition in third spot. At the top of their acknowledgements was the fast, off-loading and innovative style that the Pumas were playing with. Each game they were playing, they were feeling more comfortable at the way they playing. With their performances as a team beginning to reach its potential, their confidence also started to grow. From 1-15, every player was able to showcase their abilities with ball in hand. Their organisational structure began to bear fruit. Each player that was taking the field knew their individual jobs and knew exactly where to be at the right times. This was just what Argentina set out back in 2012. They were constantly learning from their performances and finding new ways to better themselves on an individual and collective basis. They were also discovering the patience and persistence that’s needed to put in the work that would help them to achieve their goals.
As for what the future holds for this Argentina team, who knows?
We’ve seen what they have achieved in setting out their short-term objectives, with their continued improvement in The Rugby Championship and more recently, their highly impressive performances at the Rugby World Cup. With a familiar foe in the shape of Australia, waiting for them in the semis, it should help the Argentina cause in their pursuit of more success. They know what to expect from the opposition and more importantly, from themselves. With their country’s icon Diego Maradona expected to be in attendance for the game this weekend, there could be more extravagant and passionate celebrations taking place in the Twickenham changing rooms should Argentina win on Sunday.