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Carlos Ignacio Fernández Lobbe still savours the Pumas’ historic, and entirely unexpected, victory in 1999 over Ireland. It catapulted Argentina’s underrated national rugby team into the World Cup quarter-finals for the very first time.

“They had given us up for dead. Everyone thought it would be impossible for Argentina to win, so all the Irish supporters had to rush to sell their [quarter-final] tickets,” remembers Fernández Lobbe, a stalwart of the Pumas’ second row, with a smile.

It was just one of many upsets caused by the Pumas, culminating in their astonishing performance in the 2007 World Cup, pictured, when they defeated host nation France to finish in third place.

Now ranked eighth in the world, the Pumas’ winning streak has somewhat lost its momentum, as many of the best players have retired. But hopes are high that Argentina’s inclusion in the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship in 2012 has reinvigorated the team.

“This means we are going to arrive much better prepared,” says Daniel Hourcade, Pumas head coach since 2013. While Argentina have earned a reputation for a powerful scrum, he says they are now focusing on improving their attacking skills. “Our minimum objective is to reach the quarter-finals,” he adds.

Argentina have a long tradition of rugby. Formed in 1899, the Unión Argentina de Rugby is one of the oldest in the world. But its amateur status and the lack of competition elsewhere in South America hindered the sport’s development.

That is changing. Argentina have found opponents further afield by joining the Rugby Championship, formerly known as the Tri Nations, consisting of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Despite limited victories, Hourcade says it has provided invaluable experience for the players: “We are losing against the best teams in the world. You have to measure success by whether or not we are achieving our objectives, not by numerical results.”

As of next year, with Argentina’s inclusion in the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby club tournament, those players who join European clubs will no longer be able to play for the Pumas. This is expected in the longer term to further strengthen the standard of Argentine rugby, as its best players opt to stay in the southern hemisphere rather than be scattered around the rugby world.

Although football remains far and away the top sport in Argentina, rugby is gaining in popularity. In fact, Argentines got so hooked on the team’s roaring performance in the 2007 World Cup that the biggest football match of the year, between Boca Juniors and River Plate, was rescheduled so that fans could watch the Pumas play in the quarter-finals.

“There has been a revolution in Argentine rugby,” says Fernández Lobbe. “Now we have to defend everything that we have achieved.”

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