Argentina: The land of rugby

Argentina: The land of rugby

20/09/2019 at 10:34Updated 20/09/2019 at 11:57

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The Pumas, who are one of France’s opponents in pool C of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, are hoping to repeat their exploits of 2007 when the South Americans clinched third place in France.

But their common goal is even greater: to prove to the world that Argentina is a reference in world rugby. And this despite the clichés that are hard to shake off and faced with the omnipresence of football as a symbol of the popular culture that reigns supreme in the country.

August 1961. Ernesto “El Che” Guevara enters Argentina secretly to meet the then president Arturo Frondizi. Nobody knew it at the time but this would be the last visit that “El Comandante”, the Cuban Minister for Industry at the time, would ever make to his homeland. During the trip from Ezeiza airport to the presidential palace, the secret convoy passed by the stadium of San Isidro Club (SIC), one of the most important rugby clubs in Argentina. “How are SIC doing these days?” El Che asked the driver. “How are who doing?” the driver replied. Through this answer Guevara realised that rugby was not really a passion shared amongst the majority of his compatriots. He correcting himself swiftly: “I mean how are Rosario Central doing these days?” - Rosario Central being one of the best-known football teams in Argentina. This anecdote, which appears in the biography El Che Guevara, written by the Argentinian journalist and historian Hugo Gambini, shows not only the general disinterest for this sport imported by the British, but also rugby’s place in the country’s social structure.

Argentina, land of rugby

Argentina, land of rugbyEurosport

Football and rugby: a shared history

Rugby’s beginnings in Argentina are almost indistinguishable from those of football, and this for two reasons. The first is that in the Argentina of the 19th century there was still no clear differentiation between the two sports: the rare reliable data available to historians regarding the circumstances surrounding the establishment of both sports is, in itself, somewhat ambiguous. The rules governing how to play these ball games had still not been formalised, neither at national nor international level. Then, secondly, even when a clear distinction was made between the two sports they were often played in the same clubs and by the same practitioners. These were in fact sporting institutions with even older histories: they were created and run by the British in order to facilitate the practice of rowing, cricket and tennis within the small expat community that was so attached to these activities. This acted as a starting point for the development of collective ball games.

Contrary to football, however, rugby did not establish itself as a strong symbol of “Argentinian identity”. According to a regulation dating from 1907, “an Argentine is any player born in South America, and a Brit is any player born under the British or North American flag, or British or North American nationals who were not born in South America”. The following year the notion of Extranjeros (“foreigners”) was introduced: Argentines were “men born in the country” and foreigners were “those born in any other region of the world”. The traditional confrontation on the rugby pitch between Argentinos and Extranjeros ended in 1935 due to a lack of players, only to be replaced four years later by matches between “Argentinian clubs” and “foreign clubs”, which in turn ended in 1939. But above all, rugby never played the same role as football in the country when it came to creating a sense of identity. In this sense it never gave rise to what could be described as an “Argentinian playing style” as opposed to a “British playing style”.

A difficult label to shake off

This difficulty in linking rugby to a “national identity” is perhaps due to the sport’s traditional links to the Argentinian elite, unlike football which permeates society at all levels. Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, who came from a well-to-do family in Rosario, played rugby himself for SIC during his childhood. The famous quote that “Football is a gentleman’s sport played by brutes and rugby is a brute’s sport played by gentlemen” is a recurrent one in Argentina, according to Martin Caparros, an Argentinian journalist and writer. “While footballers were dark-skinned, waif-like, poor and ignorant” he continues, “rugby players were blond, well-built, well-raised and amateur: because they didn’t need the money”.

For the journalist, this widespread image is a suitable one for a sport which continues to act as a social marker in Argentina. His opinion, however, is not shared by all. “It is true that at its origins rugby was a bourgeois and elitist sport in Argentina, but things have evolved, even if in France and elsewhere they continue to look at us in that way” according to Gonzalo Quesada, speaking to Le Monde newspaper. Quesada is a former Argentina international (38 caps) and was coach of Stade Français between 2013 and 2017. He is now assistant coach to Mario Ledesma, head of the Argentinian national team. “It’s thanks to the Puma’s progress from 1965 up to the success of 2007, when we finished third, that this sport is no longer considered as being exclusive” he continues. “Today, there is a social mix within Argentinian clubs”.

Pumas, a nickname born out of confusion

If the top point scorer in the 1999 Rugby World Cup mentions these two dates it’s because they are at the heart of sky blue and white rugby. During their first ever tour in South Africa 54 years ago the Argentinians beat the formidable Junior Springboks side for the first time (11-6). Those players were the first to be labelled “Pumas”. The origin of this nickname is notably linked to an erroneous interpretation by journalists of the crest on the Argentine’s shirts, mistaking the jaguar for its feline cousin. An error never corrected by the Argentines, who willingly accepted the wrong but ultimately flattering name.

The real turning point for Argentinian rugby, however, came in France during the sixth Rugby World Cup. They finished third with a victory over the Blues (34-10) who they had already beaten in their opening match (17-12), a synonym for success that ushered in a new dawn for Argentinian rugby. “There was an explosion of enthusiasm in France in 2007 and the sport became increasingly popular” according to Adolfo Etchegaray, former captain of the Pumas. “Enrolments in rugby clubs increased 20% following the World Cup”.

Argentina: The land of rugby

Argentina: The land of rugbyEurosport

Matera, the spokesman

It was a performance that Mario Ledesma’s men, including his captain Pablo Matera, hope to emulate. Matera, a back row forward with the Jaguars – a team also trained by Gonzalo Quesada - is a perfect embodiment of the football versus rugby division that exists in Argentina. The lack of enthusiasm for the egg-shaped ball hasn’t escaped the attentions and sentiments of the 6’4” player in a country where the most popular sport still holds a natural force of attraction. “At 17 years old I went to a national gathering held by the 1991 generation of Pumitas (The Argentina’s Under 20s side – Matera was born in 1993) who were preparing for the World Championships. I didn’t make the cut because I hadn’t really played that much rugby” El Capitán confesses. “But I came back the following year for the generation of 92 try outs. Is was from that moment that I lent more importance to rugby”.

Matera knows that he must lead Argentina as far as possible in Japan, while doubt lingers over his international career. This exceptional player has decided to sign for Stade Français in Paris following the Super Rugby 2020 competition (he played in the final of the 2019 edition with the Jaguars), but the Pumas have a rule: players playing abroad cannot be selected for the national team. Pablo Matera, who is from Mendoza, a town situated in the west of the country and one famous for its wine route, and the rest of his compatriots have only one wish: to draw strength from the success of 2007 and to prove that Argentina is a true land of rugby with international clout.