Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Rugby World Cup: Argies - We'll mess with best

Contepomi says Argentina must play a 'perfect game'. Photo / Getty Images
Contepomi says Argentina must play a 'perfect game'. Photo / Getty Images

For Argentina, tonight's Rugby World Cup match is as much about respect as the result. With the Pumas entering the expanded Tri Nations in 2012, they need to show the rugby world they belong in such company. While some within the Argentinian media have raised the prospect of a shock upset, few outside the team's inner circle believe such a result is possible.

"New Zealand are the best team in the world," said captain Felipe Contepomi. "They are the best before the game, and afterwards they will be the best again. For 80 minutes we have to play a perfect game and see if we can stop them from being at their very best against us."

"It is not whether we win or not," says Ignacio Fernandez Madero, who was part of the coaching staff at the 2003 and 2007 World Cups."The most important thing is that we play well and show we belong. This was always going to be a transitional World Cup for this team and they have surprised us a bit, to be honest."

Today's match is the perfect stage to show their wares. While they have not played the All Blacks since 2006 and Australia since 2003, from next year visits down under become an annual occurrence.

While Los Pumas have had their moments over the years, the third place finish in 2007 was the flashpoint. The achievement was greeted with rapture back in Argentina.

At the grassroots, three new clubs have sprung up in Buenos Aires since 2007, one of them an initiative to get homeless children off the street that has developed into a fully fledged club.

The hard-won bronze medal also gave them a bargaining chip at the IRB. Captain in 2007 and figurehead Agustin Pichot has become all powerful behind the scenes, sometimes referred to as the "CEO in the shadows".

The shift towards professionalism has been uneasy at times, as the great amateur traditions of Argentine rugby were suddenly under threat.

"Some here felt they were taking all the good things from rugby," says Argentine rugby writer Eugenio Astesiano, "and robbing the sport of its spirit."

The last two years has also seen the emergence of 'Las Pampas', a team made up entirely of domestic-based players. This year they beat the Bulls to take out the the Vodacom Cup, the South African competition that features development teams from their Super Rugby franchises.

"There was a sense that Las Pampas took up the baton of the 2007 team with their style and verve," says Astesiano, "and there was a call for more Pampas in the Pumas."

Eight made the World Cup cut, and among them, livewire first five eight Nicolas Sanchez is tipped for a big future.

Argentina have been starved of international competition in recent times. Their top flight team typically only play three tests a year, in the northern hemisphere in November. A home-based team usually receives a tour by a less-than-full-strength European team around June, bookended by a couple of clashes with continental rivals Chile and Uruguay.

That will all change next year as the fight for respect and recognition shifts to the southern hemisphere. Given what they have managed to achieve as the unwanted orphan of international rugby existing on scraps, their potential is surely limitless now they are a fully fledged member of the family.

- Herald on Sunday

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