Friday, March 1, 2013

Retro Friday - The world made to finally take notice

Ledesma celebrates the final whistle to the delight of Albacete and Hernández
Should Argentina indeed be the host nation for Rugby World Cup 2023 there will be bound to be looks back at what made it all possible. One of the key dates will be September 07 2007. It was the start of that years Rugby World Cup and featured Argentina playing against France to open the tournament. Argentina gave the world what was considered as an upset but in reality was nothing of the sort. Los Pumas had defeated France in four of the previous five matches, winning four in a row from 2002-2004 and losing by one point at the Stade de France in November 2006. But in order to be truely noticed teams seemingly need to win where it matters most - at the World Cup. Argentina´s 17-12 win was special for what it represented and for what happened subsequently. Argentina was the only Tier One nation without an annual competition and despite requests there was no real interest from either the Northern or Southern Hemisphere´s. The problem could be talked down due until September 07 2007. Argentina´s win changed everything. 

The win was about determination, pride and, above all else defence. But before kick-off there were other very special moments. The Opening Ceremony featured stars of the past with big names from France´s past being joined by Australia´s John Eales, New Zealand´s Jonah Lomu and Argentina´s Hugo Porta and Diego Dominguez who after playing for his home country went on to also play for Italy. It was a significant moment for Argentina to have Porta invited to take part in the opening ceremony but for the world to finally take notice of Argentina the 2007 players needed to produce a good result on the field. The players emerged from the tunnel looking highly focused and upon preparing to sing the national anthem it was clear that the players were reaady. The emotion put into the anthem was something not seen by most rugby teams. Veterans and newcomers had tears in their eyes and on their cheeks. It had an impact with Australian, British and French commentators all being impressed by the level of emotion shown by the players. 

The Argentine performance took France by surprize as Argentina attacked the French with a kick and chase game plan which saw Argentina continuously send the ball high and far with chasing players, more often than not, being in the right positions at the right time. It put Argentina where it needed to be and resutled in France giving away penalties which Felipe Contepomi converted into points. Having kicked three Argentina then scored the games only try with Ignacio Corleto scoring in the right corner. The try came from a French mistake in which backrower Remy Martin threw a floating pass which Agulla intercepted, gained a few metres and off-loaded to Manuel Contepomi. The outside centre gained further metres, attracted the remaining defenders and passed to a bursting Corleto who ran in at full speed to get around the coverong French winger and fullback. The reaminder of the match was about Argentina holding on and the South Americans succeeded in doing so. France´s chance came early on in the secondhalf but having been camped on the Pumas tryline the hosts failed to score with Argentina showing tremendous defence. Mario Ledesma made the crucial play by winning a penalty for his team as France failed to release. 

The Pumas team which took the field that evening will likely be used in the future as a benchmark for Argentine teams. It was a very strong team featuring rounded stars from European clubs. The starting frontrow of Rodrigo Roncero, Mario Ledesma and Martín Scelzo had started in the French Top 14 Final earlier that year. Also involved in the final were Juan Martín Hernández and captain Agustín Pichot. The frontrow was backed up by a highly accomplished secondrow of Carlos Ignacio Fernández Lobbe and Patricio Albacete with the former having been an English champion the previous season with the Sale Sharks and the later featuring in the same seasons Heineken Cup Final. The combination did not last the full 80 minutes as Fernádnez Lobbe was forced from the field relatively early. He was replaced by Rimas Alvarez Kairelis, a key component of the Perpignan team. The backrow was young and took a hit with Gonzalo Longo unavailable through injury. Juan Manuel Leguizamón of London Irish replaced Longo at number 8 while Agen´s Lucas Ostiglia and Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe of the Sale Sharks joined him in the backrow. 

Argentina´s backline was not a unit that covered all the bases but was, nonetheless, won which had far more world class athletes than had been the norm. Pichot captained from scrumhalf with his Stade Français teammate, Juan Martín Hernández playing flyhalf. outside Hernández was the highly gifted Felipe Contepomi who like Hernández was in his prime in 2007. Another notable player was Ignacio Corleto who was the starting fullback and like Contepomi was playing in his third World Cup. The three other backs were not the same force but did what was expected of them to see Argentina triumph. Lucas Borges was a quality winger, Manuel Contepomi a very reliable defender at outside centre and the unknown Horacio Agulla was the starting left winger. Agulla had come through the ranks in Argentina and deserved a spot in the squad but got the call up to the test team in place of José Maria Nuñez Piossek who was ruled out of the World Cup after injurying himself in Argentina´s final pre-World Cup match, against Belgium. 

The win in Paris was a massive wake up call for the IRB who had long said they supported Argentina joining either the Tri Nations or the Six Nations but failed to do anything to help make it happen. With Argentina´s win and subesequent performances in the tournament it was no longer possible to ignore the requests of the South Americans. It was a turning moment for the global game. Without the efforts of the Pumas players and coaches on September 07 the same problems from 2007 would likely still be with us today.

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