Rodrigo Orihuela
Rodrigo Orihuela

Pumas, Boks, stats and the hypocrisy of a rugby community

The Springboks’ well-deserved win yesterday over Argentina in the Stade de France was built on three key pillars: a deadly instinct to take advantage of opposition errors; crushing dominance in the lines; and Jake White’s brilliant stratagem to suffocate the rather one-dimensional, albeit effective until then, style of play of the Pumas — a stratagem that consisted mainly of a solid back line where Percy Montgomery was never left alone to defend the fullback position from the deep kicks of Pumas fly-back Juan Martín Hernández, Argentina’s top attacking force.

Prior to kick-off, statistical history showed the improbability of an Argentinian win in the World Cup semifinal: the Pumas have never beaten their opponents. This statistic, however, is denied by the Argentine Rugby Union (UAR), through its own version of the history.

According to the UAR (in Spanish), Argentina did defeat the Boks once, in 1982 in Bloemfontein, in a match the Pumas played under the alias “South America XV” and won 21-12. All points were made by fly-back Hugo Porta, the best Argentinian player to date. Marcelo Loffreda, Argentina’s coach until yesterday, was on the squad.

Argentinean rugby big wigs came up with the name “South America XV” to sidestep the anti-apartheid isolation imposed on South African sports. To this day, Porta and many other former Pumas fondly recall their efforts “to treat blacks as well as possible” on their trips to South Africa, so as to show “oppressive whites” that apartheid was wrong.

Those Pumas are most likely to have had the noblest intentions, if not the most thoroughly weighed. As journalist Santiago O’Donnell wrote in an article (in Spanish) yesterday, one could claim those Pumas were young, lived in a bubble and were ignorant of the political affairs of both South Africa and Argentina (the match took place on the day after the Argentinian military dictatorship invaded the Falklands Islands and started a ridiculous and impossible to win war against Britain).

What is not understandable about the “South America XV” match, and other similar ones, is the non-existence of any kind of latter-day condemnation or regret of those games — a symbolic gesture if nothing else.

It is striking that, in a democratic South Africa, the South African Rugby Union (Saru) has never requested other unions that broke international sanctions by sending their teams-in-disguise to play the “all-white Bokke” either to scrap those matches from their records or, at least, add footnotes to them, explaining that they were played in spite of an international campaign against a racist state.

Whether one agrees with the efficiency or not of those sanctions is a separate issue; the sanctions were in place and therefore required respect.

In an ideal world, this would not matter as sports would be all about physical and tactical performance, without any place for politics. In the real world, politics and sport inevitably mix.

The anti-apartheid sports sanctions on South Africa were one such mixture. By accepting at the time to play the Boks, the Pumas made a political decision and dismissed, as did others, a decision by the international sports community to which they belonged. Maybe, as O’Donnell says, they did not know what they were doing — although the effort to “treat blacks well” proves otherwise. However, they do now.

It is about time the people and unions who accepted the decision to apply sanctions and then, quite hypocritically, changed their names and shirts to break them, did something to redeem their behaviour. A good place as any to start would be by scrapping the “only win over South Africa” stat from the UAR website.