The Pumas beat France 34-10 to finish third at the 2007 Rugby World Cup and, not long after, I went to an IRB meeting that discussed future plans to include Argentina in the SANZAR stable of competitions.
Some of those who attended the meeting were concerned that Argentina’s success had been a once-off and that they wouldn’t be able to sustain it in the Tri-Nations.
At that time, most of the Pumas squad was based in Europe. In fact, coach Marcelo Loffreda had held the pre-World Cup training camps in France because 27 of his 30-man squad played in the French leagues. It was easier and cheaper for them to fly the Pumas management team to France than to fly most of the players to Argentina.
The Boks won the World Cup with a squad of home-based players and the Bulls were the reigning Super Rugby champions. But that’s all changed in the past decade.
The Pumas have since done a U-turn and don’t pick overseas-based players anymore, and they’ve beaten Australia, Ireland and South Africa in the past five years. This season, the Jaguares have beaten the Lions, Sharks, Stormers and Bulls, and they’re in the running to clinch Super Rugby’s SA Conference.
Meanwhile, after a string of record defeats, the Boks have again turned to overseas-based players, and the Sharks, Stormers and Bulls have lost more matches than they’ve won.
In 2007, pundits would have expected an invitational team from Argentina to get murdered by SA’s top provincial sides. Now, they’re beating our ‘regional’ teams.
People will say that the Jaguares are the Pumas, and they’re right. But that’s because Argentina don’t pick players who are abroad, even though some of their best are in France – Juan Imhoff (Racing Metro) is one of the best backs in Europe and loose forward Facundo Isa (Toulon) would make any Super Rugby team.
Argentina have made a point of copying New Zealand as closely as they can with the resources that they have. You want to be an All Black? You stay in New Zealand. You want to be a Puma? You stay in Argentina. They’ve brought back the pride of staying at home to play for your country and the price of that sacrifice is financially much greater for an Argentine player than it is for a Kiwi.
Agustin Creevy was earning lots of money in France and it’s admirable that he gave up what he would have earned as a premier hooker in Europe for the chance to represent Argentina. More than just the potential shortfall in earnings, the rugby structure in Argentina is much shallower than it is in New Zealand and South Africa – if you don’t play for the Jaguares, the next step down is amateur club rugby.
Guys like Juan Martin Hernandez and Nicolas Sanchez were already household names when they opted to head home from Europe, but for the average Argentine youngster, who in the past would have gone overseas to make a name for himself (such as 21-year-old winger Bautista Delguy), he’s got to play club rugby to earn a place in the Jaguares and then, hopefully, the Pumas.
That means, if you get injured playing for the Jaguares during Super Rugby, or for the Pumas during the Rugby Championship, the only place for you to play your way back to match fitness is in club rugby, because there is no other rugby.
I spent some time in Argentina and their clubs have generally got one field with all the teams training on it. They kick off at about 7pm at night to give the guys time to get through the traffic after work, and they finish up at around 10pm. Some of those guys go on to play for the Jaguares and then the Pumas.
Ten years ago, people would have said it’s unfair because those guys can’t possibly compete with the best in the world, but now they are. You have to wonder how much of it is down to their rugby improving, and ours regressing – we’ll have to wait until the Rugby Championship to see.
The Argentines are also very much like the Kiwis in that they have held onto their rugby traditions and they have the same rugby values. If your grandfather played for San Isidro Club, then that’s where your dad played, it’s where you play, and it’s where your son will play. It’s like that in New Zealand too.
I was once at the Dunedin town hall for a post-Test function with the Boks, and All Blacks greats Jock Hobbs and Sir John Graham made a toast to Tana Umaga that gave me goosebumps. Tana was coming to the end of his career and, even though I’m sure they did it again in a private team setting, they didn’t want to miss the chance to publicly thank Umaga for his contribution to New Zealand rugby.
It’s one of those things I’ll never forget. They weren’t scared to do it in front of the Springboks, and it just showed how important it was to them – to everyone there, it was very clear how special it is to be an All Black.
They made sure that Tana walked out through the front door. In South Africa, some of the greatest players leave out the back door. Os du Randt retires and, after a short stint as the Boks scrum coach, he’s gone. Percy Montgomery was the kicking coach, and the next week he’s gone.
And it would be remiss of me, as a guy talking about rugby tradition, not to mention that we’re quietly going to close Newlands, one of the game’s most iconic venues, without so much as a send-off. The second oldest rugby ground in the world may have hosted its last Test and its last Super Rugby match without so much as a goodbye. We’re just going to wipe that history away without a thought.
One of the things I’ve never enjoyed about South African rugby is that we don’t know how to finish things in an orderly way. In New Zealand, they temporarily rename a stadium for Wyatt Crockett; our veterans almost never retire with a swansong. You can’t always get it right, but we don’t even try.
They understand that thinking in Argentina. Maybe that’s part of the reason the Jaguares are nine points clear of the Stormers with a game in hand.