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The three top Pumas of all time

Roar Guru
3rd September, 2016
47

A post by Frank O’Keeffe about the top rugby players made me reminisce of some of the Pumas of my time.

In this brief note, I would like to share a story or reasons for three of the selections.

I played a lot back row and even though I played other positions in the field, back row was my true love. Growing up, you were either a left flanker or right flanker. There was no 6 or 7 position, as it is known now.

I was primarily a left flanker, though on occasion, our coach made stay always in the open. So, there goes my bias. Back rowers first.

Marcos Baeck
Marcos, or ‘El Mandril’ as he was known played for Pueyrredon, my club. He was behind me by three years. I was primarily a second team player, comfortable in my role in the club – good enough to play most of the time, but unlikely to break into the first team, where there were “legendary” players on those positions.

I was a good player, technically very skilled but never powerful enough in the body and mind to make it. Except for once, the starting players were injured and I found out I was being considered to play.

However, they chose Marcos. I was mad and frustrated as I thought I was “entitled” to that spot, but given the circumstance, Marcos was already a star at under 20 level.

I had to admit that it made sense they picked this 18 or 19-year-old kid. He was magnificent. The starters recovered from their injuries and Marcos went back to play U-20 that year.

In retrospect, the club made a wise choice. I could not have played as well as he did. I was not physically in a good spot and in my mind I was already planning my move to the US for my postgraduate studies.

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Now I see that I would have probably embarrassed myself if I had played. Even if I didn’t, I could have never played like Marcos. I then moved away and Marcos made it to the first team and the Pumas.

A few years later, the Pumas played in Santa Barbara against the USA and I went to see them practice and play. They invited me to practice with them and I was then again reunited with Marcos.

His game against the USA was remarkable. He had inherent power. He was brutal. When he carried the ball, he was hard to tackle.

When he tackled, it hurt. He was not the most elegant player, but his power and skillset were amazing. His brother, Juan, was a Puma too. He played hooker.

He was like the modern Dane Coles, skilled to the limit but at the time the Pumas preferred another hooker, Cubelli’s dad from Belgrano. I still believe it was a mistake. So, because he ‘took’ my chance for top team honours, I selected Marcos as one of my preferred back rowers.

Tommy Petersen
Tommy played for San Isidro Club (SIC). He is a few years older than me. He was very fast, very brave, and very skillful.

He is probably in most Argentines’ list of top Pumas back rowers. He played for the Pumas for quite a few years and it was a pleasure to watch him. He played like a modern number 7, always there.

One year, and I can’t recall again when, my club’s second team was playing SIC for the semi-finals of the top tournament for second teams.

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We were playing at ‘the ditch’ (la zanja) as SIC’s field is called. For us it was a big deal and the coach selected primarily players that had played all year for the second team. I was one of them.

In order to play that game, the rules were that you needed to have played at least three matches that year for the second team.

SIC applied the rules but played as many first team players as they could. Clearly, they were superior and we were going to get whipped.

In the first play I could see that the flanker in front of me was Tommy. I was just flabbergasted, he was my hero, the player I looked up to and now I had to play with him, or better said, against him.

Somehow, I didn’t get intimidated but it took me a while to get focused on my game. As predicted, we were getting beat up badly.

In a few line outs I managed to steal a ball from Tommy (no lifting then) and also block some of the plays through the back of the line out.

At the end of the match, I was leaving the field, a bit dejected as we got killed, but Angel Guastella, the legendary Pumas coach and frequent coach of my club, came to me and told me that I had a brilliant game and that I had matched Tommy that day.

To this day, I don’t think that was possible or true. But I still dream that somehow, that day, I played a little like one of the most legendary Pumas in my list.

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Martin Azpiroz
I have never seen Martin ‘el pato’ (the duck) play. He was well before my time. Martin introduced me to club rugby.

I had started playing as a little boy at St Brendan’s, a local Irish school, and when he found out I was interested in rugby he took me to his club.

Martin’s club was not one of the elite ones. It had won the Buenos Aires championship only once in 1953. It was known as a blue collar club. By that time, Obras Sanitarias (as it was called) was always fighting for relegation. But Martin was a legend.

He captained that championship team and also the Argentina national team before it was called Pumas. He was in the cover of the largest sports magazines in Argentina, El Grafico, which was almost always about soccer.

I think it was the first time that a rugbier was in the cover. By the time I grew up, everyone older told stories about Martin.

The mythology was that one year, the French toured Argentina and after the first match, the French stated that they wouldn’t play the second match unless Martin was off the team. The UAR agreed – this wouldn’t happen today.

Guastella, my coach, who played in the national team with, him used to tell me stories of his ferocity and power. Martin was of pure Basque blood.

Thus, he was hard as stone, stubborn like a mule and not the most open minded person in the world. But he was generous and kind to everyone. For years, it was common to see tons of people coming to shake his hand and chat with him during games. He was the tough man for tough men.

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I hope that through these brief and a bit emotional vignettes you can see a part of rugby that we usually do not discuss on The Roar. It is a bit more about me than about them, but I hope you see the interaction with them more than the ‘me’ storyline.

Other Argentines will have different players in mind for the list. And I am sure we can agree or disagree. But these three will be in mine. No questions, no debate.