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The continuous conflict in Argentine rugby

Joaquin Tuculet of the Jaguares. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
Roar Guru
8th March, 2018
51

What are Argentineans? What is Argentine rugby? To paraphrase an old friend of mine from the UK, they are an enigma inside a conundrum inside a Gordian knot. Inscrutable. Once you think you get to know them, they show a new angle.

I have lived outside of Argentina for the better part of 35 years, so I really belong neither there nor here. It is difficult to figure out how society has changed in these 35 years, despite the constant contact.

Why do I bring this up? It is rugby that has kept me in closer contact with my country, my old friends, my club and, somehow, current events.

Yesterday, there was a publication in a Spanish journal of an interview with Hugo Porta, probably among the greatest number 10s in history and the most famous Argentina rugby player.

I have been stunned by some of his statements and wish to transcribe and comment on a few of them so that Roarers have a better capacity to figure out what is going on. To add some perspective, I will also include a few comments of a discussion I recently had with Eliseo “Chapa” Branca, a former Pumas lock, also very highly considered in World rugby.

Finally, I will add a few comments after some time discussing Argie rugby with a 22-year-old kid who plays for Champagnat, a URBA club of prestige, while skiing in Jackson Hole last week.

Hugo Porta is a gentleman, always polished, always elegantly dressed, measured in his words and polite to the extreme. This interview appeared in www.alacontra.es on March fifth.

“I played all over the field. Before, flyhalves received the ball anywhere and we did whatever we wanted. Flyhalves and any other player. We thought. We read the playing context and acted accordingly. Today, players only play in certain field zones from which they should not exit otherwise the video analyst has told them one thing, the attacking coach something else, the kicking coach another thing and so on.

“This way it is impossible. They can’t make decisions; they are just a link in the chain. In addition, now you have the touch judges that want to get noticed or the TMO who wants to remind everyone that he’s there.

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“It is impossible. When I used to play, 6s and 7s hit me very hard but I learned to defend myself. I knew how to take care of myself. This is rugby.”

Agustin Creevy of the Argentina Pumas

(AP Photo/SNPA, Ross Setford)

I sympathise with what Porta is saying here. But this relates to bad coaching and not necessarily to rugby itself. If coaches are dogmatic or have poor coordination, then you will have these problems in any time point.

Nowadays and in old times. Bad coaching is a universal phenomenon not related to a particular era. When he played for Banco Nacion, it was very difficult to tell Porta what to do and that club also had some marvelous players so it was reasonable for his coaches to give him freedom to operate.

But also defensive mechanisms were not that evolved. Again, I find the premise comparing eras to be faulty. You can watch Kiwi Super Rugby – or even Mitre 10 – teams today playing what is “in front of them”, despite still maintaining structures.

The same can be said to the way that Scotland is playing now. I presume that Ireland’s play reflects more of what Porta is complaining about.

“I remember that Catamarca Ocampo, the inventor of the “bajadita” would pick up a rugby ball and, showing it to the kids, would ask them what it was … He would them tell them that this was life itself. Here you have happiness, sadness, friendships, rivals, enemies, learnings, victories and defeats”.

Besides the melodramatic delivery, I suppose that we still learn rugby and play it by the values it tries to instill in us. I am still with him here. But, wait, here come the interesting parts.

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“We used to play for the jersey. Two or three matches a year. Now, I am not saying that they don’t have feelings regarding playing for the Pumas, but they play ten matches a year (sic) and they do it for money. It is simple. Whoever plays for the Pumas should pay to play instead of being paid.

“Because playing for the Pumas gives you status as a player which doubles or triples your income if you play in Europe. So, they should pay to play and that money should be invested in the clubs, who are the dynamic force of rugby in our country.

“In Argentina, in Spain and in Zimbabwe. I don’t believe in universal solutions that are proposed from boardrooms with no sensitivity to each country’s identity.

“In Argentina, rugby is amateur and must continue being this way because it is in our deepest roots and convictions. In Samoa, it is a game, because they have a ludic feeling for the ball different to what the South Africans propose, for example.”

As you can see, maybe because of the way the interview was held, Porta combines and mixes many issues within one paragraph. Fundamentally, he wants Argentine rugby to remain amateur. I have no idea what he means by “paying to play for the Pumas” but this is a very strange statement.

I don’t disagree, and I don’t think that any country disagrees that the foundation of rugby is amateur. The kids, the clubs are the ones that generate the players for professionalism but his implementation is rather bizarre.

His insistence on amateurism does not make sense either, at least to me. If Argentina became fully amateur, they would quickly lose standing in international rugby and probably, they would not be able to play any country with professional players. I cannot imagine a Rugby Championship with Argentina being amateur.

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“They ask me a lot about the Jaguares and I will say something: I am not surprised with what is happening to them. They are the result of rugby’s professionalisation. They are neither a club nor a national team. Jaguares don’t have a soul.

“They are a bunch of players who get together for money to play other teams formed the same way. And it is to be expected that clubs start to deny their players to the Jaguares, who have been formed for years to defend the colors of their jersey.

“There is no feeling of belonging. I go on Saturdays to the club to pass the ball with the kids. I belong to Banco Nación”.

Again, Porta is correct in stating that the Jaguares are not playing to the best of their ability or that they don’t appear to have the old Argentine mysticism, but I do not agree that the reason for this is professionalism. Other countries have Super Rugby franchises that play with a lot of passion and ownership.

While there are also franchises that don’t seem to have it, as Roarers have continuously pointed this out for years, the point to me is much more subtle.

The way that the Jaguares have been structured, as one team only and the same team playing for the Pumas, is what may create part of the problems. I do not agree that it is money alone.

“Pumas are something else. I am saddened to see how the Pumas, which is a brand that works for success and to make it grow, have continuous gross defeats. I like that Hourcade, I believe, has retuned to the team the intentions to play from anywhere on the field, but it is hard to dissociate that they are playing for money.

“In what moment a player will risk his place in the national team and the money related to it doing more work than what he is told to do. What I don’t buy is the tale that we will beat NZ. Will I see this before I die? I hope so, but I don’t think it will be soon.”

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Again, Porta goes back to the point that the root of all evil is professionalism. It is like the old story that if you are a hammer; everything else looks like a nail.

I also do not agree at all that players limit their effort to protect their income. If anything, reviews from the UK, for example, clearly show that players knowingly put their bodies at risk to increase their value or income. This statement from Porta is just false.

There are a couple of paragraphs dealing with his experience post rugby, which are not relevant here, but I will return to the rugby ones.

“The All Blacks are a step above everyone else. They are always ahead. The game is moving towards what they are proposing. Rugby has become very physical and it has limited raw talent.

“But do notice that the Kiwis do bet on talent, to maintain the ball alive and to play from anywhere on the field. South Africa has always played using physicality and now that everyone has become equally physical, they can’t seem to find ways to win. Australia has always relied on rugby league to become competitive.

“We are somewhere there, no idea where we are going. In the Northern Hemisphere, I am looking with curiosity to Eddie Jones, who demonstrated his intelligence with Japan. And the Irish, they are the Argentines of Europe, with their way of feeling rugby. And I can’t believe France! Players who don’t know what to do with the ball, with what France has been!”

Well, all these countries are professional and he doesn’t seem to have a problem with them. And, interestingly, New Zealand seems to have the best-structured professionalism and maintains a superior playing base.

There is an inherent contradiction between his anti-professionalism and the way he admires New Zealand play. I also don’t know what to say about poor Ireland being the Argentines of Europe. I will let the Irish on the Roar comment.

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“I am not the one to give orders, but rugby is for the kids. This is a pyramid and you have to work the base and not the peak. A country’s rugby is that of their clubs. And who doesn’t understand this lives backwards from reality.

“Please, tell your coaches to teach the kids to be good people, to make friends, to have fun. If they don’t tackle or pass correctly, it is not important. That you can coach. But teach them to make friends, to enjoy and explain to them that rugby is a game that you win or lose, and it is not bad to lose because it teaches you things about yourself.

“The most important thing in rugby is to think, listen and have fun. Let’s not try to manufacture rugby players. That will get there naturally because we all want to win and even more when you know that you belong in a team, the club’s jersey, and you have by your side your friends and family. But before being rugby players, we are people. I will never be able to give back to rugby what it has given me, and the friends I have around the world.”

Nicolas Sanchez of Argentina makes a pass

(AFP PHOTO / MARTY MELVILLE)

I don’t think that many people can disagree with the statements here. I still believe that to be a good rugby player you have to be a good person. And I don’t care if you only play for love or you play for love and money. Good people are better rugby players.

If anything, this is an All Black mantra. But, you have to work at all levels to maintain the spirit. If you ignore the peak of the pyramid you will have problems. If you ignore the base, you won’t generate players for the peak.

His basic rejection of professionalism has polarised rugby even more. He has a very cool relationship with AP9, the other force of Argentine rugby. Typical of the tribal view of rugby in Argentina, you are either with one leader or the other.

I find Porta’s professionalism statements antiquated and out of touch with modern rugby. He does not offer alternatives to Argentine rugby. Just saying that it should remain amateur does not resolve the problems.

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All those generalities about being a good person are not part of the solution. This has been a classic element in almost any country and though it is nice to be reminded of it, it does not resolve this situation.

I should have been more disappointed about these statements, but as Nobrain has indicated, this has been his position all along. What I find surprising is that Argentines have taken these statements with the same infallibility view as the Pope’s.

You cannot criticise Porta. Even my brother, who actually played for Porta’s club, has jumped all over me for daring to criticise him.

“Chapa” Branca is not like Porta. He is frontal, less polished, more direct and doesn’t have the “diplomacy airs” that Porta carries. He was a sublime lock, selected sometimes as best in the world in his position. But locks rarely achieve the same glory as 10s. I spoke to him by phone a few days ago before the Porta interview.

Chapa told me about the success of club rugby in URBA and other parts of Argentina. He was enthusiastic about the number of players and the growth.

He indicated that the big clubs can have up to seven men’s teams on any weekend. And that in some clubs, the monthly fees to play can get close to the equivalent of U$D50, which is a lot of money in Argentina.

But he said that there is also a dark undercurrent. There is recruitment of players and they are offered “jobs”, “health care” and other incentives to play. He called this “brown amateurism”. He also said that most clubs still work on basic skills and teaching players to play the New Zealand way.

But there appears to be very little focus on size, so most teams have backs in the 75 to 85-kilo range. Good for club rugby but not helpful for selection. In addition, he stated that most clubs train five days a week and this is an enormous commitment to kids of college age.

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He does worry about the delay in studies in order to play rugby at that level. He also worries about the season length, in particular as it is supposed to be an amateur tournament.

The young man I met in Jackson was also convinced that, if you were skillful enough, being an 80-kilo player was sufficient. I told him that the only outside back at international level that I knew nowadays who was around 80 kilos was Damian McKenzie. He wasn’t moved.

I am glad that at club level, rugby remains a game for all sizes but also we have to be realistic that it will be increasingly rare to have 80-kilo backs who are not scrum halves or even flyhalves.

In my opinion, the transition area between amateur rugby and professional is still grey and confusing. At least in Argentina, this is not managed well. This is why we can have antiquated positions like Porta’s and realities like Branca describes.

Last weekend, the Jaguares played with a wing, Delguy, who was stated at weighing 80 kilos. He had to mark Lam from the Hurricanes. It didn’t go well for him. Once he got the ball, he was very agile, but it only takes one brutal tackle from someone like Lam or Savea to show the problems of this selection.