Listen to this article
As the leading rugby nation in a continent that was named after the wrong man (explorer Amerigo Vespucci), it is appropriate that the Argentina team who play world champions England in London on Saturday should be operating under a misleading nickname.
The South Americans were dubbed the Pumas in 1965 by a South African journalist who failed to recognise the animal on Argentine badges as a jaguareté. The name has stuck and has long been accepted. Ever since that touring team beat the Junior Springboks, the Argentines have gone on showing that, like their feline namesakes, they are not to be trifled with.
England coach Andy Robinson’s decision to go into today’s match with the same team, save Perry Freshwater for the injured Andrew Sheridan at prop, that started against New Zealand last week is borne in part of desperation. England have lost their last six matches, equalling their all-time record. Any win will do.
At the same time it is recognition that anything less than England’s best would be doomed to failure against Argentina, two places and only a couple of ratings points behind them in the International Rugby Board rankings.
The men who will start for Argentina at Twickenham on Saturday are the bearers of a vigorous and colourful rugby tradition, implanted in the 19th century by the British settlers who controlled Argentina’s railways and much of its agricultural production.
It was rapidly adopted by Argentina’s anglicised middle-classes, leading to a remarkable succession of rugby-playing doctors including a Nobel Prize winner for medicine (Bernardo Houssay) and a certain revolutionary (Ernesto “Che” Guevara). Current national captain Agustín Pichot’s predecessors include Arturo Rodriguez Jurado, heavyweight boxing champion at the 1928 Olympics.
Argentina are world rugby’s outliers – the only leading nation without regular annual competition and the only country that practised what it preached in the game’s fraught pre-professional era.
The Pugh report of 1995, which pronounced a death sentence on the game’s ruling amateur ideology, said that every significant rugby nation had been tolerating wholesale rule-breaking in this respect, except Argentina. When the game’s self-proclaimed guardians of the amateur ideal heard their integrity trashed in this manner and unblinkingly embraced professionalism, Argentina attempted to hold the amateur line.
Together with the rapid development of a global market in talent, the inevitable outcome has been a diaspora of Argentine talent – some Italian-descended players have invoked their ancestry to play for the Azzurri, while other Argentines have secured professional contracts abroad. Wing Pablo Gómez Cora is the only home-based starter at Twickenham.
Nor are the exiles merely making up the numbers at their clubs. Sale, winners of the English title last year, and the Stade Français and Biarritz teams who have won the past four French titles have leaned heavily on Argentine talent.
The diaspora gives the Argentine game a dual character – geographically southern, culturally northern.
It has left the Argentina Rugby Union, still finding its feet after a financial collapse, in something of a quandary in pursuing its goal of regular international competition. Geographical logic impelled it towards the southern hemisphere’s Tri-Nations competition, where it encountered the insensate myopia and greed of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, who decided to award each other further fixtures against themselves rather than incorporate a potentially competitive outsider.
With most of their players in Europe, Argentina are looking at the possibility of joining Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, France and Italy, turning the Six Nations into Seven. Coach Marcelo Loffreda said they might be prepared to forgo home advantage for a few years if that eased acceptance.
There is little doubt Argentina would be competitive, wherever they played. In the past year, they have beaten Wales twice in Argentina, lost only 25-19 to the All Blacks and beat Scotland at Murrayfield. A year earlier, they were the first team ever to beat France in Marseille.
England’s poor form is not the only reason for believing that Argentina can mount a serious challenge. Their forwards will be as formidable as ever in the scrummage, while English players know at first hand about the talents of London Irish number eight Juan Manuel Leguizamon and the Fernández Lobbe brothers of Sale. Six of the starting 15 play their club rugby in England.
At half-back, the French-based Pichot and Felipe Contepomi, who is currently in sublime form for Leinster in Ireland, are among the two or three best combinations in the world, edged out perhaps only by a New Zealand pairing of Daniel Carter and anyone who can get the ball to him quickly. There is also pace and wit in the three-quarters.
England’s struggles could be Argentina’s opportunity. Pumas rarely show little mercy to wounded prey.
Huw Richards is the author of ‘A Game for Hooligans: The History of Rugby Union’, Mainstream Publishing £16.99