If the course of history had turned out differently, an octogenarian journalist from Argentina might have attended Argentina’s opening match of the 2015 Rugby World Cup at London’s Wembley stadium against New Zealand. He might have compiled an engrossing match report of how his compatriots took on the mighty All Blacks, but history and politics would draw guerrilla revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara – who was executed in the Bolivian jungle in 1967 – away from the 15-a-side game.
The young Che Guevara was a fan of his local club Rosario Central. He enjoyed playing soccer, swimming, and golfing despite his acute asthma. He also loved rugby and was a decent fly-half, but rugby clubs were apprehensive about signing him on as a player because he looked too scrawny.
Ernestito’s father moved him to Córdoba, where the crisp climate and clean air would help assuage his illness. There, Guevara played for Alta Gracia Rugby Club and soccer club Estudiantes de Córdoba. “I love rugby,” responded the single-minded Guevara when questioned by his worried father. “Even if it kills me one day, I am happy to play it.”
His flirtations with the English sport continued in medical school in Buenos Aires. He founded and edited his very own rugby magazine, called Tackle. The local police accused Tackle’s editor of spreading communist propaganda when a column criticized the existing elitist predominance within the game.
Indeed, English immigrants and the high society had introduced and then appropriated the game in Argentina during the Victorian age. They weren’t economic immigrants, fleeing from poverty and persecution, but industrialists and landowners, who converted Argentina into a part of the informal British empire based on economic influence. They played a big part in Argentine agriculture, livestock breeding, processing, refrigeration, and export. In this context, criollos were only tolerated in the game from 1904 onwards.
Rugby clubs were apprehensive about signing Che on as a player because he looked too scrawny.
And so began Argentina’s long haul to the top. Los Pumas participated in the inaugural 1987 Rugby World Cup and reached the semifinals in the 2007 edition, but have faltered too often on the biggest stage. Yet expectations for this World Cup are sky-high again, a reflection of coach Daniel Hourcade’s aspiration to implement a more dynamic brand of rugby, expanding the forward-oriented game of his team.
In 2013, Hourcade accepted the hot seat of Argentine rugby, the apex of his coaching career after leading Argentina’s U21 and the Argentina Jaguars – a light version of the Pumas – in the past. Since Hourcade’s appointment, Argentina has taken the scalps of France, Australia, and South Africa.
In no large part those victories are due to Argentina’s constant exposure to elite rugby after its inclusion in the Rugby Championship in 2011, the former Tri Nations. The Unión Argentina de Rugby (UAR) was admitted to the tournament under three stringent conditions: develop professional rugby in Argentina, reform leagues into a single professional league, and ensure the availability of players for the tournament, plying their trade in France’s Top 14 and England’s Premiership.
“Argentine rugby is traditionally the strongest in Latin America, because European immigrants had a defining impact on the culture.”
The enforced professionalization remains a snag, with many of UAR’s board members opposed to such an idea. “In Argentina the clubs will never – never – professionalize,” said Argentine rugby journalist Lisandro Olearo, who writes for Diario El Ciudadano. “The Pumas and the Jaguars are different from the clubs. All the clubs are amateur, but they are the heartbeat of Argentinian rugby. That’s where the next Pumas will be born. That’s the place where the players learn rugby. That’s the Argentinian philosophy of rugby.”
It’s small clubs like Alta Gracia that are pivotal to the development and progress of Argentine rugby. Players who do excel move to professional leagues in Europe. Nine members of the World Cup Pumas squad play on the old continent, with back-row Juan Lobbe and winger Juan Imhoff playing for RC Toulonnais and Racing 92 respectively in France.
“Argentine rugby is traditionally the strongest in Latin America, because the European immigrants had a defining impact on the culture, more so than on the rest of the continent,” said Olearo. “For a long time, isolation was a huge problem for the sport.”
Now the Rugby Championship and foreign players have taken Argentina out of its hibernation in the Americas, where Los Pumas are the only International Rugby Board tier one nation and are scarcely soothed with paltry games against Uruguay and Paraguay in the CONSUR Cup. Such is Argentina’s local domination that the team holds a 100 percent record against its South American rivals, often pummeling Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay with overall points differences of 1473, 1317, 1297, and 1007 respectively in 107 matches.
For all its improvements, Argentina, in the end, caved to New Zealand’s relentless battering 26-16, and so the Pumas began their World Cup campaign the way they finished the tournament in 2011 in the quarterfinals: with a spirited show of resilience and grit, but a defeat to New Zealand. Five days later, they found redemption with a high-scoring 54-9 victory against Georgia in Gloucester.
The qualification for the quarterfinals is now a must with games against Tonga and Namibia to come in the group stage. If Los Pumas then have one big game in them, they might well extend their stay at this six-week long extravaganza of burly and bulky athletes mauling, driving, and aiming for the try-line with the right to lift the smallish, golden Web Ellis Cup as the ultimate goal.