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Opinion

Argentina remind us why we love rugby

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16th November, 2020
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They happen so infrequently but stick in the memory forever. Forget professionalism – since the dawn of the game itself everyone has loved an upset. The greater the apparent difference between the two sides on the day, the longer the upset will live on in rugby folklore.

Japan beating Ireland at last year’s Rugby World Cup, and South Africa at the one before that. Ireland beating New Zealand in Chicago. Samoa beating Australia in Sydney. Western Samoa beating Wales way back when.

It’s far from an exhaustive list, but they all evoke memories and pull at heartstrings.

Argentina 25, New Zealand 15 is already doing the same thing.

The lead-in to the match is well known. Argentina hadn’t played a Test match in more than 400 days going back to last year’s Rugby World Cup and much of their squad hadn’t played a game at all since the Jaguares’ last match of Super Rugby.

You might remember that the Jaguares never got to play their game against the Highlanders on the weekend the season was suspended. Their final game came in South Africa on the first weekend in March. Their last game at home was in mid-February. It’s hard to know when they might next play in a Jaguares jersey at all.

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New Zealand insisted there was no such thing as A and B teams but proceeded to name arguably their strongest team this year. They wouldn’t dare take Los Pumas lightly, their selection suggested.

Yet their performance suggests they might have.

From the outset, it was very clear Argentina were up for the contest. Whether or not All Blacks backrower Shannon Frizell was provoked is rather irrelevant. His overreaction in shoving Marcos Kremer sparked the melee that allowed the Pumas to get right in the faces of their opposites.

The Pumas stand in a line for the anthem

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

It also produced one of the great referee-captain interactions between Angus Gardner and Pablo Matera, who launched at Frizell and returned everything he gave Kremer with interest.

Gardner: “What we need to see is some leadership from you, okay? What we don’t need you to do is come and push players after the whistle, okay?”

Matera: “I can see one of their guys hitting the face of one of my men. There’s no respect. I’m playing for my country, and there’s no respect.”

Gardner: “I understand that, but let us deal with it.”

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The beauty of this exchange is that while Gardner walked away thinking his message was received, Matera was the clear winner. There’s a decent argument to be made that Matera was showing exactly the kind of leadership Gardner was asking of him.

Matera produced one of very best captain’s knocks in international rugby in recent years. He led from the front, wreaked carnage on New Zealand with ball in hand and in defence, and was the dominant breakdown force as well.

One of the endearing images of the game will be his determined but silent facial expression as he won a crucial ruck penalty as the Pumas defended their line in the closing minutes.

Without question it was a phenomenal and inspirational performance from Matera.

But what drove the Argentinean players to play the match of their lives?

The hint was there the day before the Test. On Los Pumas social platforms a video was posted outlining the lengths the squad went through to overcome the adversities of complete isolation as Argentina was locked down for months.

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“In this context of adversities, the team was strongly formed thanks to the effort of everyone in it,” the English subtitles of the Spanish caption read. Examples of those efforts followed.

Hooker Julian Montoya, pictured lifting kettle bells, trained for over 100 days in his apartment. Prop Santiago Medrano had his dad riding a scrum impact sled as he lowered himself to the engage height and powered forward into contact.

Tomas Cubelli fired passes into the walls of his building’s garage. Lucas Paulos practised his lineout jumping and sent the video to the coaches. Hooker Santiago Socino had his father stand on the roof while he practised lineout throwing.

Nicolas Sanchez ran goodness knows how many thousand laps of his home in racking up 21 kilometres up and down his hallway. Pity his neighbours when he started kicking practice.

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Zoom sessions kept the team connected for six months in quarantine. Once in camp, they still trained socially distanced. The army was a constant presence. Swabs and COVID tests were commonplace. They isolated all over again on arrival in Australia.

It’s a video that will make you rethink what you might have thought was a tough time during the various stages of lockdown on either side of the Tasman.

Importantly, they ran out onto Bankwest Stadium on Saturday and put it all into practice and blew the Tri Nations open in the process. All three teams now have one win each with three games to play. The All Blacks are anything but assured of winning the tournament, as seemed likely when it began last month.

Australia can similarly forget about any plans of resting players or perhaps pitching untried players into this weekend’s match in Newcastle. A match Wallabies fans might have been eyeing off as a chance to try new combinations now demands Dave Rennie’s best possible side.

Respect for the Argentineans similarly demands it, and the Tri Nations in Australia is alive because of it.

All because Pablo Matera was told to show some leadership.