On Saturday in Rosario, Argentina’s rugby team, the Pumas concluded their first ever season competing in the rarefied heights of the Rugby Championship against the top three sides in the world with a narrow 25-19 loss to Australia.
Despite the defeat, which consigned them to the bottom of the table with four points, the Pumas have earned plaudits from their opponents and the world press alike for the quality of their play and the competitive spirit of their rugby over the two months of the tournament, vindicating those like former captain and now administrator, Agustín Pichot who had been lobbying for years for Argentina’s inclusion in the world’s toughest competition.
After the game Pumas’ coach, Santiago Phelan summed up his feelings on his side’s performances, saying: “It is difficult to take stock in the heat of the moment, but we lived an intense experience.” He added: “We have no shortage of things to improve upon, but it is extremely positive to have played on an equal footing with the best teams in the world. The team will get better, but there remains much to work on.”
Aside from the home match against world champions New Zealand in which they shipped 54 points, at no point in the competition were the Argentines outclassed. Indeed, they were heartbreakingly close to winning two of their matches, at home to South Africa in which they gained a historic draw, and away to Australia when they fell to a defeat by just two points after leading late on in both matches.
One of the most pleasing aspects of the competition for the Pumas was the successful integration of a new breed of home based players such as Leonardo Senatore, Martín Landajo, and Tomás Leonardi, proof positive that the High Performance Development Programme, which has seen promising young players perform in South Africa’s Vodacom Cup, is starting to bear fruit.
As Senatore says: “In this tournament we learned day by day, week after week, aside from the freak result against New Zealand, growing all the time. We could make mistakes, but we tried hard to correct them and grew both on and off the pitch, leaving with an incredible experience and I hope that each year Argentine rugby grows a little more.”
Argentina began their inaugural Rugby Championship adventure in the shadow of Table Mountain in Cape Town’s Newlands stadium against South Africa. Able to welcome back their 2007 World Cup hero, Juan Martín Hernández at fly half after five injury-ravaged years, Argentina set about their task with relish, but they were always on the back foot as the Springboks took control of the game through tries from Zane Kirchner, Marcell Coetzee and Bryan Habana. Nevertheless the Pumas defended manfully to keep the score down to 27-6 and deny their opponents a bonus point.
For their first home game of the tournament in Mendoza’s Estadio Malvinas Argentinas, the Pumas recorded an historic first ever draw against South Africa having lost the previous 14 encounters against the Springboks. Santiago Fernández’ first half try helped Argentina to a deserved 13-3 lead at the interval, but in the second half Marcelo Bosch saw his kick charged down by François Steyn, who ran through to score for the South Africans who ended up levelling the game at 16-16.
The Pumas’ travels then took them to the ‘Windy City’ of Wellington for the first part of their Australasian double-header against New Zealand’s all-conquering All Blacks. Argentina showed that that they did not fear their illustrious opponents, having the temerity to lead until the 24th minute after Rodrigo Roncero’s try cancelled out Aron Cruden’s early penalty. Tries from Julian Savea and Cory Jane restored All Black superiority, but a mighty defensive performance restricted New Zealand to a very creditable 21-5 scoreline.
Buoyed by their continued progress, the Pumas nearly caused the shock of the tournament when they faced Australia at Skilled Park on Queensland’s Gold Coast. Two tries in two minutes early in the second half from Tomás Leonardi and Julio Farías Cabello saw Argentina race into a 13 point lead which they held until just ten minutes from the end before Pat McCabe and Digby Ioane scored late tries for the Wallabies to win 23-19 and break Argentine hearts.
In La Plata, Argentina welcomed the All Blacks as football was temporarily relegated from the back pages of the newspapers and rugby fever took hold. The febrile atmosphere in the stadium became even more delirious as a Martín Landajo try gave the Pumas the lead after eight minutes. It was not to last long as Ma’a Nonu started an New Zeland try-fest, to be followed by a hat-trick from Cory Jane, two from Julian Savea and a try from Aaron Smith as the All Blacks simply overwhelmed Argentina’s vaunted defence and power to a 15th consecutive test match win 54-15, Gonzalo Camacho’s try in the 47th minute doing little to put but the thinnest respectability on the scoreline for the Pumas.
Having come so close to causing an upset against the Wallabies on the Gold Coast, the Pumas fancied their chances of gaining their first Championship win in the return leg at Rosario’s imposing Gigante de Arroyito stadium, in front of a passionate partisan crowd. Despite veteran front row forward Rodrigo Roncero making an emotional international farewell in front of his home supporters, the fairy tale result failed to materialise as 20 points from the boot of Mike Harris and a second half Digby Ioane try earned the Australians a hard-fought 25-19 victory.
The next challenge for Phelan’s battle-hardened men is a European tour in November when they take on Six Nations champions Wales, France and Italy as they seek to maintain their top eight world ranking, important for securing their place among the second seeds when the pool draw for the 2015 World Cup is made on 3 December.