May 25, 2013
Argentine rugby enters big time
It is hoped, and expected, that Argentina’s final acceptance into the Southern Hemisphere’s annual 3-Nations Championship (to become simply the Rugby Championship) will start a new era for the game in this country. Even if at first the Pumas will not be very competitive against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa (who they face in the opener in Sydney tomorrow), it will raise their standard as was the case with Italy in the European 6-Nations Tournament after they joined it.
There are some opinions however that Italy should not be taken as an example to follow because there are substantial differences in the way rugby is played and felt here where it is more popular and with a longer history. In 12 years in the 6-Nations, Italy has only won a couple of matches. It is hoped that Argentina’s transition will be faster. Yet Argentina’s participation is only assured for four years, until 2015 when the tournament’s current TV contract expires.
Meanwhile, the International Rugby Board (IRB) offered 10 million dollars as guarantee for any loss suffered by the original participants by now playing against Argentina instead of three games each against each other. The Rugby Championship agreement states that Argentina can continue to participate as long as TV does not offer less money for the next contract. So the Argentine Pumas are on a hiding to nothing with a time limit to become really competitive in four seasons.
For their match against South Africa tomorrow, coach Santiago Phelan has picked 13 of the 15 players from the last quite successful World Cup squad. One of the important absentees is leading points scorer Felipe Contepomi (34), the Pumas captain until June, with 14 years in international rugby, including 67 tests and four World Cups. Although he continues to play for Stade Français, he decided after long thinking that it would be better for him personally and the team to withdraw, although leaving the door open if really needed. Contepomi was wrong about his decision being best for the team and when he said earlier that Argentine rugby was 15 years behind that of the Three Nations he may also be wrong. Other players do not agree with him although secretly they are not sure of winning any matches this year.
Several years ago, at the IRB°s suggestion, the Argentine Rugby Union (UAR) put players under paid contract (62 this year) to stop them going abroad to play professionally and also to form a higher quality training squad. It did not work out that way. They were being paid only the equivalent of 600 dollars a month and 50 dollars a day on tour which, to compare, is less than Brazil’s women players get and less than the cheapest ticket at the last World Cup final. Yet Argentine test teams continued to be made up mostly of men playing in Europe.
The IRB has now ordered clubs to release players for Rugby Championship duty, but this has unfortunately backfired. Some English and French clubs have not renewed contracts of Argentine players which they would be losing for part of the season. Perhaps this influenced Contepomi’s decision.
The UAR engaged former New Zealand coach Graham Henry for nine weeks in several periods to help coaches. He was not allowed to coach players as he still works for the New Zealand RU, but at least one training session he was seen talking to players. He insisted that Argentina will have to improve in attack and the line with all 15 involved to score more tries.
Presently the UAR’s annual budget is only a fifth of that of any of the countries they will meet, so what will they get out of it financially? It is estimated that 30 million dollars per season will enter the UAR’s coffers through their participation in the Rugby Championship, even if none of this year’s matches will be played in Buenos Aires. Although the IRB would have preferred matches to be played in the capital, venues were offered for a million dollars and will be played outside the capital which, according to the UAR, will not earn less. In May, the UAR already announced that the 36,000 tickets for the match against New Zealand, to be played at the Estadio Unico in La Plata on September 29, had already been sold out. This shows the sport’s and long awaited tournament’s popularity, apart from the fact that in 2011 the UAR showed an increase of 37% to 52,345 registered players.
PORTA DISAGREES. Argentina’s former captain and all-time top scorer, Hugo Porta (60) said in London last year that those that forget the past don’t have a future. He said that we cannot stop the evolution of the game, but should at least try to preserve the essence of rugby. “Today it’s a war of muscles with the barging tactics of the modern game. I saw more blood and injured players during the last World Cup than ever before.”
Porta had played in the inaugural World Cup in 1987 and witnessed all the others. He led the Pumas to a famous victory against Australia and kicked all his team’s points in a 21-21 draw in 1985 against New Zealand who beat them in every other meeting. Porta thinks people are tired of seeing the three Southern teams and that Argentina’s entry will bring new life into the Rugby Championship, but he laments that rugby is turning into a sport where the physical aspect prevails over talent. He says he lived in another kind of rugby with Argentina always having affinity with the French who produce players with flair like here.
There is a lot of truth in what Porta says, but the physical aspect is prevailing over talent in many sports — soccer and hockey to name two examples — and in the Rugby Championship the Pumas will have to adapt today’s tactics to get anywhere.