Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby World Cup: Beginner's guide to Argentina

Argentina take on the All Blacks tomorrow for a place in the World Cup semifinals. Most New Zealand fans hope it is the last time Los Pumas are sighted at this tournament, so Pat McKendry of APNZ gives a beginner's guide to the South American side.

Argentina's Felipe Contepomi is calm under pressure. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Argentina's Felipe Contepomi is calm under pressure. Photo / Brett Phibbs

In the beginning

The first rugby match in Argentina was played in 1873 after British immigrants brought the game to the South American country. The first international was played in 1910 when a side managed by Oxford University - supposedly the England national team, but including three Scottish players - toured Argentina. The touring side were dubbed the "Combined British", or "Great Britain XV", and beat Argentina 28-3.

The Lions toured in 1927, winning all nine games including all four tests. It helped popularise the game in Argentina, even though it was five years before another international team, South Africa, toured. Argentina played their first away test in 1936 against Chile, which was also their first test win (29-0).

Mistaken identity

The puma is the mascot of Argentina, but the animal on the front of the jersey is a jaguar.

The cat confusion has its roots in 1965 when Argentina first toured South Africa - their first overseas trip as a team.

There are a few explanations for why they became known as the Pumas on that tour. One is that a South African newspaper reporter confused the two animals while under deadline pressure, the other is that "puma" is simply easier for an English speaker to understand than "jaguar" when translated from Spanish. Either way, it stuck and was adopted by the Argentines.

All Blacks loose forward Adam Thomson did well this week when put on the spot and asked about his knowledge of the puma, although a fair proportion of the following sounded like a bluff.

"It likes to hunt by itself, ambush attacks and it has big claws," he said. "It goes for the neck and will choke its victim out usually."

A bit like the way their forwards play, then.

For the record

Graham Henry would be out of a job if he posted these sorts of numbers but Argentina have won an impressive 59 per cent of their internationals. Admittedly some have been against powerhouses like Chile, Venezuela and Spain but they have also registered wins over Australia (four out of 17 games), England (four from 17), France (11 from 44), Ireland (five from 12), Scotland (nine from 13) and Wales (four from 13).

The only teams they haven't beaten are New Zealand (0 from 13 but with 1 draw), South Africa (0 from 13) and the Lions (0 from 7).

World Cups

The Pumas have played at every World Cup since the first in 1987, but the last in 2007 was their best when they finished third.

They beat France twice in that tournament - the first in the tournament opener and the second in the play-off for third and fourth (when they won 34-10).

Their other tournament of note was 1999 when they made the quarter-finals only to lose 47-26 to, you guessed it, France.

Argentina have played the All Blacks once at a World Cup - in a pool game in Wellington in 1987 when New Zealand won 46-15.

Home away from home

The majority of Argentina's top players play professionally in England or France - 23 of the 30-man World Cup squad play in Europe - although this could change with the introduction of Argentina into the Four Nations from next year. European clubs have agreed to release their Argentine players for the tournament but more will be tempted to play Super 15. Leicester prop Marcos Ayerza told media this week he would be keen to have a crack at Super 15.

Despite the diaspora, 18 of the World Cup squad were born in the nation's capital Buenos Aires. The next most favoured place of birth is Rosario, the third largest city in Argentina, where five of the squad were born.

Doctor who

As a qualified doctor, Felipe Contepomi is used to life-or-death situations, which is probably why he was so calm as he kicked the last-minute conversion which clinched the all-important victory over Scotland at Wellington's Cake Tin. A first five-eighths who has been compared to Dan Carter by former Argentina halfback Augustin Pichot, Contepomi plays for Stade Francais in the French top 14 competition.

The 34-year-old has a twin brother, Manuel, a centre who has also played for the Pumas. In 2007, while playing for Leinster in the Magners League, he collected his degree from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and worked at Beaumont Hospital, in Dublin. Contepomi and his father, also a doctor, recently opened an orthopaedic medical centre in Buenos Aires.

He is one of three in the squad to have represented Argentina at the 1999, 2003 and 2007 World Cups.

UNLUCKY 13

The All Blacks struggled to a 24-20 win in Buenos Aires in 2001, courtesy of a late Scott Robertson try. Argentina have never beaten the All Blacks in 13 attempts since their first meeting in 1985, although they have come close.

New Zealand have dominated tests in this country, including a 93-8 romp at Athletic Park in 1997, but it has been a lot tighter when the All Blacks have travelled to South America.

The second test played between the two sides in Buenos Aires ended 21-21 when the great Hugo Porta kicked four penalties and three dropped goals to match the All Blacks in an era of four-point tries. The All Blacks tries were scored by John Kirwan (2), Craig Green and Murray Mexted.

In 2001, Scott "Razor" Robertson wrote himself into All Blacks folklore by scoring the winning try in Buenos Aires. With only a minute to go and the All Blacks trailing by three points, the loose forward finished the movement which broke 70,000 Argentine hearts at Estadio Monumental Antonio V Liberti, also known as the River Plate Stadium.

"I took the lineout ball and as I was running along one of the Argentine guys tripped over me and I just stood up and stayed there," Robertson said this week.

"I ended up standing outside [fullback] Ben Blair. They chased across, we held our width, and Benny gave me a great ball and the rest is history. It was great."

PORTA CALL

You know you've made it when your car is stolen and thieves return it 24 hours later once they read who they have taken it from. Welcome to the world of Hugo Porta, a rugby hero from a country that worships soccer players.

The carjacking incident occurred in Buenos Aires in 2000, long after Porta had retired from international rugby in 1990. "I was just arriving home and they chased me and took my car," Porta told the UK's Daily Telegraph. It's important to know Porta's body language as he told the story to the reporter - a shrug, a smile and a laugh. "They threatened me with the gun. The problem is when somebody is pointing at you with a gun, you think: 'If they pull the trigger, everything is going to be over'. It's stressing."

Porta was hardly ever stressed on the field, which probably explains his calmness in facing someone with a pistol.

His playing career spanned an amazing 19 years and 36 days, and he is widely considered as being in the top 10 of first five-eighths who have ever played. He was capped 48 times and scored a record 590 points for Argentina.

When he retired from rugby, he became Argentina's ambassador to South Africa following a job offer from President Carlos Menem.

Porta, now aged 60, told the Daily Telegraph: "It was amazing. My life really changed completely. The only directions I had from the President were: 'You go there, you work hard, I am sure you will find some rugby friends and you will build up a team'. In the beginning it was very tough, but I am proud to say we did it from scratch.

"I never thought I would talk to the Pope, Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro in the course of a day's work. And with Nelson Mandela, I had a very good relationship. I was decorated by him when I left. He invited me and my wife to tea at his house and he told me: 'I want to make you a decoration on behalf of South Africa, but as you are a friend I don't want to do it with protocol'. That was great for me."

He held the ambassador's post for four years before returning to Argentina as Sports Minister.

- APNZ

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