The Changing Ball Shape of Argentina

Photo credit: Paolo Camera

Photo credit: Paolo Camera

“Why did you choose Argentina?” is one of the most common questions any expat is asked by both travelers and locals. For me the answer was simple – RUGBY. Of course there is an extremely passionate support of the ‘round ball’ code here; yet there is no doubting that when it comes to rugby, Argentina towers above the rest of the Spanish speaking world. So when I decided to immerse myself in a Spanish speaking country, my passion for rugby made the choice a simple one – of course quality wine and womenfolk helped me steer in the direction of Mendoza.

2012 marked the beginning of the ‘Rugby Championship’ which has the Argentine national side, Los Pumas, playing against three of the world superpowers of rugby – Australia, New Zealand and South Africa twice every year. In a major coup for Mendoza and much to the delight of rugby tragics here, the first game to be played on Argentine soil will be here in the Malvinas Stadium against the Springbok. While this would be a tough assignment for any rugby side, the Pumas have definitely earned this promotion. For many years, they have been the only country to be regularly ranked in the top 10 teams not to be involved in an annual international competition. However, amongst other fine performances, a very impressive third place in the 2007 World Cup meant the bigger nations couldn’t ignore the Pumas anymore. In fact, the Superclasico Boca versus River football match was moved so as to not clash with the quarter final game that year.

“The bigger nations couldn’t ignore the Pumas anymore.”

Historically, the first game played was in Palermo, Buenos Aires by a group of Englishmen in 1873 and by 1899 the formation of the River Plate Rugby Football Union ensured that the sport found its roots. It has since spread throughout the country. Especially since the 1960’s, playing against the Pumas has always been a tough task. They are one of the few sides to have held the New Zealand All Blacks to a draw (21-21) after a stellar performance from one the greats Hugo Porta in 1985. However, it was the heroics of the Pumas during the past 15 years, especially when led by awesome scrum half Augustin Pichot, which has made the wider public in Argentina sit up and notice. It may come as a surprise that when the game turned professional in 1995, it remained amateur here. Only last year did the national side start getting paid for matches. This has resulted in the majority of players like Pichot (before he retired) to seek out contracts in Europe to ply their trade. The union here is still very reluctant to see a professional structure within the country.For the most part rugby has been played by the wealthier classes due to this amateur status. However, with wider coverage and some stirring results by Los Pumas, rugby has begun breaking the traditional class barriers. A classic example is Pumai Rugby Club, where I coach and play and which has grown immensely since its founding in 2002.

“They are one of the few sides to have held the New Zealand All Blacks to a draw.”

Anyone who has played rugby will know of the emphasis on the social part of the game. In Argentina this is no exception and here there is what is known as “tercertiempo” or the “third half” where players of both sides share a meal and a drink (although not the excessive beer swilling that I was used to in Australia). I used this time to ask club director and founder Lucas Miranda what the test match means to the local game here.

“Gigante” he tells me. “It is a giant step for Mendoza to have a test match of this magnitude here. It will be fantastic for the public to have a chance to see the world’s best and will be a great image for youngsters. Rugby has made many advances in Argentina and this is a huge bonus for Mendoza”.

When Lucas first started Pumai, which is based in Maipu, there were around 40 players. Now the club has 180 players and teams competing in all age groups. Pumai has also started the first ever female team in Mendoza this year.

“We have players from all social classes, which 20 years ago was very rare” Lucas explains. “Martin Scelzo, a current Puma is the son of a butcher for example, which definitely broke the traditional professional background of the national players”.

While some of the older clubs still have an elitist tradition, clubs like Pumai are breaking this mold. In the local league run by the Union de Cuyo, there are seventeen teams in Mendoza and six in San Luis and San Juan. For many years there was two grades but last year a third division called the ‘Primer Desarrollo’ was begun because of the increase in popularity.

So are we likely to see a professional league?

“Not any time soon” says Lucas, “there is still a lot of support for the amateur status.” But who knows, now with the introduction of the Pumas into one of the biggest tournaments of the rugby calendar perhaps the tide of professionalism could be too strong to resist. For now though, rugby folk will be pleased to see the top teams in the world here at least once per year.

By James Dosser

Published in the August/September 2012 edition of Wine Republic

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