This week, Harry Jones wrote about the Jaguares and his disappointment at their performance in this, their first year of Super Rugby.
Before we pass judgement on the Jaguares, we should put this into a bit of perspective. What is the history of rugby in Argentina? What political and social underpinnings affect the way rugby is played and enjoyed?
This is not a dissertation, but a very quick summary that should help Roarers understand what is going on.
There are four basic issues affecting rugby in Argentina:
1. Socioeconomic issues.
2. Politics – surprise!
3. Rugby philosophy
4. Organisational issues
Many of these issues are interrelated and cannot be seen as individual aspects. But let’s give it a try.
Argentina is a country of constant animosities. First, it was the city port (Buenos Aires) against the ‘interior’ (provinces). In football, it is Boca Juniors against River Plate. In politics, it is Peron and the ‘gorillas’ (anti-peronistas).
Even rugby has its own quirks. First, it was the ‘rich’ clubs that started rugby, all of English origin, such as Belgrano Athletic, Buenos Aires Cricket and Rugby, Lomas Athletic, and so on.
Others that became part of the elite group, such as Club Atlético San Isidro (CASI) or Club Universitario de Buenos Aires (CUBA), followed these clubs. People of higher socioeconomic status played for those clubs. This was all in Buenos Aires. The rest of the country didn’t ‘exist,’ except for a small group in Rosario, as one of them was a founding rugby club (Rosario Athletic).
Rugby grew and other clubs were formed with less of an ‘elite’ background. There was Pucará, Obras Sanitarias, and Los Matreros, just to give some examples.
Pucará was the first club, from the Southern suburbs, to beat a touring team. Obras Sanitarias was the first club from a modest background to become champions in 1953.
But, by the late 60s, the interior was significant. There were a few players from outside Buenos Aires that played for the Pumas, although they were still a minority. Coaches, players, the matches, all were based in Buenos Aires.
This generated huge animosity for the city from the rest of the country. Buenos Aires didn’t even have its own rugby union; theirs was the national one, the Unión Argentina de Rugby (UAR). Eventually, the Unión de Rugby de Buenos Aires (URBA), supporting the city and surrounding areas, was founded in 1995 and the UAR became only the national union.
To this day, there’s animosity between Buenos Aires and the provinces. Everyone wants to beat the big city. Cordoba and Tucumán became powerhouses, especially Tucumán. This is remarkable, as it is a very small and rather poor province. But whoever plays Tucumán should be prepared to go to war.
Interestingly, rugby is not seen as a totally elite sport there, it is just more popular, though it has nothing compared to football.
To this day, you have players from Buenos Aires and players from the rest of the country as almost two separate groups.
Coaches have mainly been selected from Buenos Aires, although there have been exceptions.
The president of the UAR is not from the big city either. And every election is a big political fight between the provinces and URBA. Martin Gaitán, an associate coach, has limited experience as coach and had his playing career cut short by a health issue. He is from the “interior” but played for CASI.
Felipe Contepomi is also an assistant coach, famous internationally; he played his rugby for Newman in Buenos Aires, an elite school in the northern suburbs. The current country president is a graduate of this school. The majority of the Jaguares team is from the provinces.
Professionalism was strongly supported by the rest of the country and fought very hard by URBA. Buenos Aires was adamant they didn’t want anything to do with professionalism.
Some of their clubs are total dinosaurs; CUBA does not allow women as members. The most ferocious attacks on rugby’s professionalism come from the Buenos Aires crowds to this day.
Nowadays, there is a provincial national championship, as mentioned above, and a national club championship. The leading URBA teams from the Top 14 tournament qualify for the national club competition. A Buenos Aires team has won it both years (CUBA and Hindú).
The championship existed before but it has been raised in level and organisation recently. The former national club championship has always been won by Buenos Aires teams except for Duendes (Rosario) twice, Jockey Club (Rosario) once and La Tablada (Cordoba) once.
There is another issue too. Argentinians seem to have a love affair with ‘leaders’ (to be generous with the term). They seek a strong person to be in charge. In football, they absolutely adore Diego Maradona. They tolerate Lionel Messi, despite his humble disposition. They want their leaders to be noisy, loud and maybe even a little obnoxious. This is why Gus Pichot is now so important. He is powerful and strong.
Despite coming from an elite old club, CASI, Pichot’s skills as a politician are remarkable. He has the rest of the country supporting him (albeit some reluctantly). He has managed to get incredible support from World Rugby. Graham Henry told me that the only reason he went to Argentina to help the Pumas was because Pichot asked him.
In rugby, Argentina sees the scrum as a psychological weapon to defeat the other team. The scrum is the essence, the beginning of every thing that has to do with the game.
The “bajada” was a tool to dominate the other teams. The feeling is that if you win the scrum, you manage the rest. An Argentinian cannot conceive of having a weak scrum, it is unacceptable.
The biggest criticism of refereeing in Super Rugby by Argentine rugby fans is the scrum. They do not understand and are vociferous with the put in. They cannot accept that the ball can go in on an angle. It removes the purity and the essence of the scrum for them. But the Jaguares do not have a front row strong to dominate Super Rugby. So being weak at what is the essence of their existence is a huge mental issue.
I once spoke with Mike Cron about the scrum and he said that, for NZ, the scrum is just a tool to return the ball to play. He just wants a clean and fast ball. The technique is there to get the ball out to do something else with it.
Kevin Mealamu once told me that, for any All Black forward, their preferred team to play against was the Pumas, because they loved the scrum confrontation. They knew that if they did well against the Pumas, they did a good job. For Argentines, it is a domination tool. Getting the ball out is nice. A scrum pushover try is the pinnacle for any Argentine fan.
Many Roarers have been complaining about the fields where the Jaguares play. Why there are limitations or areas blocked?
It is rather simple. There are no rugby specific stadiums in Argentina. Despite the very long tradition of rugby, somehow they never managed to get their act together. In the 1960s, the Pumas and other touring sites played in Buenos Aires at the Gimnasia y Esgrima field in Palermo. The stadium is small and not in good shape.
Then they moved the matches to Ferro Carril Oeste, a football club. The stadium was bigger and had amazing grass, but it was rented from the club. The Pumas also play in Velez Sarsfield, another football club.
The Jaguares have been using this one. There are also no new stadiums in Argentina, besides the one in La Plata where the Pumas play frequently. The bad economic situation and poor political environment made it very difficult to build anything new.
Most stadiums are in poor shape and were designed for football. Some have athletic tracks around them, like River Plate’s ground, which was the site of many football World Cup matches.
The Pumas and Jaguares deserve a proper stadium. But where to build it? Due to the Buenos Aires against the rest situation, it becomes almost impossible to reach an internal consensus.
The country cannot presently afford two stadiums. Even if they managed to find the resources, it will be a virtual civil war to decide on where to build the second one. Buenos Aires, the metropolis, has the crowds, the club numbers and players but they are not considered as passionate as the provinces.
What most people would find surprising, but as an Argentinian I find very normal, is that the UAR, Pichot and everyone else knew the Rugby Championship was going to happen a long time before the first match, and that the Jaguares had joined the Super Rugby and would need a stadium.
But the plans were sloppy and done at the last minute. There was a feeble attempt to build a stadium at CASI, in the northern suburbs of Buenos Aires. CASI is a very traditional club with a huge history of success and many famous players. Pichot is a former CASI player as well.
But the club turned it down. It was a crazy idea. There were no other reasonable plans so, at the last minute, the UAR tried to find somewhere to play. This is not embarrassing. This is normal. They found Velez Sarsfield as they had a tradition of playing there. However, the UAR must confront the stadium issue and figure out how to build one. Or two. The economic crisis doesn’t help.
Associated with the stadium is the practice location for the Jaguares and Pumas. They don’t have a dedicated space. Over the last couple of years, with SANZAAR and World Rugby support, UAR has built five ‘high performance’ sites around the country. They have to be upgraded for a fully professional team.
Maybe one (crazy) way to get two stadiums and training facilities built is having two Super Rugby franchises, one for Buenos Aires and one for the rest of the country. I can only imagine the grumblings such a proposal would create, but there are sufficient players to support this idea.
All big changes in Argentine rugby have occurred as a result of major crises or events. The Pumas rose to the occasion in 1965 when they had to tour South Africa and South Africa sent two coaches to help them. The Pumas made it to the quarter-finals of a Rugby World Cup for the first time in 1999 when local coaches resigned at the last minute and Alex Wyllie from New Zealand took over. When Phelan, selected by Pichot himself, was failing terribly they brought Henry to save them. True advances came from outside influences.
The Jaguares, in particular, need this outside help too. They thought that having a Pumas assistant coach and many Pumas players would be enough.
In my opinion, they needed a proper SANZAAR adviser or assistant coach to guide them for the first two years until they figure it out themselves. They are making many rookie mistakes and their particular idiosyncrasies are making life difficult. The results may put the Jaguares into a bad rut.
This could be dangerous, as it could affect the Pumas and the viability of Super Rugby in Argentina. SANZAAR needs the Jaguares to succeed, and I hope they are supportive and helpful. Hopefully, Greg Peters, who recently joined Argentine rugby, can fulfil his role and provide sufficient guidance to help deal with some of these issues.