Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Rugby: Apprehension in Argentina

Argentina did not play the All Blacks at all between the 2007 and 2011 World Cups - now they will meet twice a year. Photo / Getty Images
Argentina did not play the All Blacks at all between the 2007 and 2011 World Cups - now they will meet twice a year. Photo / Getty Images

The Pumas this year become the fourth team in what used to be the Tri Nations. Michael Burgess visited Argentina and found nervous rugby people who know they face difficult times but believe they will do better than Italy entering the Six Nations.

Argentina's entry into the Rugby Championship is a bit like finally scoring a date with the girl of your dreams.

You are ecstatic, doing cartwheels at getting the opportunity, mixed with the stomach-churning reality that you now have to perform.

Just a few months out from the inaugural competition, in Argentina there is an equal mix of trepidation and hope on the streets, in the clubrooms and on the rugby fields.

In a country where confidence is never in short supply, where everyone has a certain swagger regardless of their situation or vocation, there is a growing realisation about just what the Pumas are up against this year.

The national team have their chance to play at the top table - now they have to prove they belong.

"Playing six matches in succession against the best teams in the world is the biggest challenge that Argentinian rugby has ever faced," Pumas coach Santiago Phelan told the Herald on Sunday. "This is bigger than any World Cup. I don't know if it is too early or if we are ready; the fact is we have to be ready."

Expectation grew after Argentina's third place finish at the 2007 Rugby World Cup and has maintained a high level.

"People in Argentina don't always have a lot of patience - we expect instant success but I think those who understand rugby realise we have a very difficult path ahead and they will judge us accordingly. We have to compete, and compete well."

Rugby in Argentina boomed after their 2007 success, with player numbers increasing 20-30 per cent and four new clubs springing up in Buenos Aires alone.

The Pumas coach from that time, Marcelo Loffreda, expects a similar dividend from the Rugby Championship.

"It will bring more people and more fans into the game," says Loffreda. "It is not solely about success but also about being competitive."

Already new sponsors are coming into the sport. Nike has signed on as apparel sponsor and Quilmes beer is planning a huge marketing campaign around the competition.

Within the rugby community, there is much talk of Italy, and their difficult, nigh on disastrous, first few years in the Six Nations, but Phelan dismisses the comparison.

"It is completely different to the situation with Italy," says Phelan. "We have to play the three best teams in the world. They don't. Playing against England, France, Wales etc can be tough but the Southern Hemisphere teams are on another level."

"They will want to make a good impression," says former Puma Raul Perez. "We don't want to be way, way back - like the tail of the donkey - like Italy were when they were always getting thrashed."

While the Pumas will struggle, there is good reason to believe they will not be whipping boys.

The Argentinian game has much more depth than their European counterparts, with a domestic structure that continues to turn out quality, hardened footballers.

Then there is the intangible factor of passion and jugando por la bandera (playing for the flag); the Pumas always give the impression they are ready to die for the cause.

MOST EXPERTS in Argentina agree that entry into the Rugby Championship is a case of too much, too soon but too bad.

"It is too early and we are going to suffer," says Perez. "But we can and will adapt. We are good at adapting - probably because of the way this country is. We have economic crises every 10 years but we always bounce back. Life goes on; life has to go on."

Perez refers to the 2001 meltdown, when the economy collapsed and many lost their life savings in a single stroke. In the space of two weeks in early 2002, the country had five presidents; each had to be helicoptered away upon resignation, rather than risk the wrath of the public. Life is still difficult and the peso remains incredibly weak but there has been a revival, fuelled by a boom in soy exports.

"We are not ready but of course we can't turn down this opportunity," says Loffreda. "We will pay a price but the only way forward is to play."

Jose Luis Imhoff is a legendary figure of the sport there, having been a player on the historic 1967 tour to South Africa (where the Pumas gained their name) and then national coach on three separate occasions, including a spell alongside Alex Wyllie.

His son Juan is a current Puma and scored the match-winning try against the Scots at the World Cup.

"I always used to say you need one year to prepare for a tour to New Zealand," says Imhoff as he sits in his doctor's surgery in Rosario, surrounded by photos and memorabilia.

"This is different to a tour - sure - but it is still such a mental and physical test, let alone going to Australia and South Africa as well. Juan and I talk every day about this and I tell him, 'you have to prepare; you have to prepare very well'."

In the four years between the 2007 and 2011 World Cups, the Pumas faced South Africa once and didn't play the Wallabies or All Blacks at all.

This year they face two tests against each nation; by the 2015 World Cup, they will have played the three Southern Hemisphere titans more than 20 times.

"We are going to prepare as well as we can but we may still be far away from the other three," says Daniel Baetti, who was assistant coach alongside Loffreda during 2000-07.

"I think we need 40 top level players for this competition, especially as Southern Hemisphere rugby is much more physical and we will need replacements."

Baetti should know. A Puma for a decade in the 1980s, he captained the team that toured New Zealand in 1989, overwhelmed 60-9 and 49-12 by Buck Shelford's incomparable team, though they held the All Blacks to a 15-12 halftime lead in that second test. That match was also his last, a heavy (but legal) hit by Michael Jones ending his tour.

"As you saw at the World Cup, we used the same core of around 20 players for all the important matches; the ones below them don't have the experience of the top guys, nor the technical ability."

Phelan was a man under huge pressure before the World Cup, as results in the intervening years had not been promising (six wins from 22 matches) but reaching the quarter-finals brought him some time.

"We were disappointed to lose the quarter-final but we faced the best team in the world," says Phelan. "We gave a good account of ourselves until the 70th minute - then we were like a car with no petrol. But we learned a lot on how to prepare."

Phelan will use the same build-up as last year, including an extended pre-season camp in the United States. The coach is confident that all his European-based players will be available for international duty and he left last week to meet most of them (close to 70 across France and Britain).

The European clubs have all been made aware by the IRB that they must release their players and there is talk that many of their contracts will be adjusted financially to take into account their absence.

"I hope all of their contracts are signed well before [the Championship]," says Phelan. "It is very important that they are finalised by then. I'm sure all of the players will be able to come back."

"The ones who were putting the most pressure on the Pumas to have a proper international calendar were the players - it wasn't the administrators," says Perez. "All of what has happened has been pushed for by the players and they will all be here. They know it is going to be a hard road, they know that in the first few years there will be more cuts than champagne but as professionals, there is no greater challenge."

- Herald on Sunday

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