Rugby: Not quite the big cats, Pumas have claws nonetheless

Our series looking at the six teams visiting Dunedin during the Rugby World Cup continues, as Hayden Meikle profiles Argentina.

Think of a sporting cliche and it has, at some stage, fitted the Argentina rugby team perfectly.

The sleeping giant. The dark horse. The poor cousin.

For years, Argentina has existed in a sort of global rugby limbo - not quite good or rich enough to sit at the top table with the big boys, but a cut above the minnows.

The Pumas built a reputation for being extremely difficult to beat at home, generally because a big-kicking first five like Hugo Porta could keep them in the game, but rather flaky on the road.

Money has always been a major problem for Argentine rugby. Proudly amateur, even when the sport turned professional in 1995, the national union could only stand back and watch as its best players fled to Europe.

This helped the development of those players, many of whom starred in Britain and France, but made it very difficult for the national side to regularly field a full-strength XV.

The Pumas have played only 18 tests in the past four years.

That's a piddling figure when you consider the All Blacks play 13-15 a year.

But things are looking up.

Argentina has finally been welcomed by its southern hemisphere brothers into the Tri-Nations, which will become the Four Nations from next year.

That should provide an immediate boost for Argentina and its ability to keep its best players in the fold. It will also help revive a flagging, predictable competition.

The Pumas were arguably the biggest success stories of the last World Cup. They upset France on the opening day, sending the host side on a collision course with the All Blacks, and repeated that result in the third-fourth playoff.

But the going has been a lot tougher in the past couple of years, and Argentina has plummeted to eighth on the IRB rankings.

The team's brightest star, electric first five Juan Martin Hernandez, will miss the World Cup due to injury, and some veteran players have retired.

The Pumas will still be tough to beat up front but there will be huge pressure on captain Felipe Contepomi and rising star Martin Rodriguez to create opportunities to score.

Argentina opens its campaign with a juicy clash with England in Dunedin, but perhaps its most important pool match will be against Scotland.



Argentina: the facts

• Capital: Buenos Aires.
• Population: 40 million.

1 Argentina declared independence from Spain in 1816. Its most famous 20th-century figures were authoritarian leader Juan Peron and his wife, Eva (Evita), who looked a lot like Madonna. Years of military leadership, a little spat with the Brits in the Falkland Islands, and a hefty amount of political bloodshed kept the country in the news.

2 The country has spectacular wildlife and is a major producer of honey, soy, maize and wheat. It has also had great architects, sizzling tango dancers and talented film-makers.

3 Great Argentine sportspeople include basketballer Manu Ginobili, golfer Angel Cabrera, footballers Alfredo Di Stefano, Gabriel Batistuta and Lionel Messi, and Formula 1 champion Juan Manuel Fangio. Oh, and some bloke called Maradona.

• Coach: Santiago Phelan.
• Captain: Felipe Contepomi.
• Previous World Cups: Third in 2007, quarterfinalist in 1999.

Games: v England, Dunedin, September 10; v Romania, Invercargill, September 17; v Scotland, Wellington, September 25; v Georgia, Palmerston North, October 2.

Players to watch
1 Felipe Contepomi - versatile, experienced back who starred at Irish club Leinster before heading to France.
2 Mario Ledesma - the veteran hooker will play at a fourth World Cup.

3 Martin Rodriguez - Only made his debut in 2009 but is already an established force at fullback.


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