Rugby is a toffs’ game. At least that’s what most Argentinians think. Not that you would be able to tell by the Pumas’ trademark rough, on-the-verge-of-the-rulebook style of play. The working classes play football in this country, even though there are be some footy-playing toffs around. But there are no working-class guys playing rugby — not at the top competitive level at least.
In fact, rugby is not too popular a sport over here. This is partially to blame on people’s dedication (obsession, if you prefer) with football. Another factor is that the Pumas have never won any major titles — and won’t be doing it in the foreseeable future, given that they don’t play in either the Tri- or Six Nation-style tournaments and stand no chance in the World Cup, which they open today against hosts France.
Winning a major trophy would surely draw fans to the game and, more importantly, freeze TV viewers on whatever channel is screening a Pumas match. It happened over the past five years with basketball, which went from being a niche sport in Argentina to being the second-most-popular one. What happened?
Well, first the national side managed to inflict the first-ever defeat in the history of world basketball on a United States team formed by NBA players, and did so in the US, before losing the final of the 2002 World Cup to basketball powerhouse Yugoslavia (when Yugoslavia was a country and not just a geography textbook side-note). Two years later, the same Argentinian side won gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics. That did the job and earned national basketball matches a slot on prime-time TV.
There will not be anything similar happening in rugby, mainly because the Tri-Nations teams are unbeatable for Argentina. Since things are so tilted towards the mighty in rugby, your average Argentinian would be happy to root for the team if they managed to put on simply a decent performance as opposed to a great one — let’s say either a dignified loss to the All Blacks in the second round or a loss in the quarterfinals to whoever.
In 1999, this country went through a short-lived “everybody loves rugby” phase when every slacker in the land thought he could tell a scrumhalf from a prop. It was right after Argentina beat Ireland in Wales in the second round of the World Cup, in a memorable finale that had 14 Pumas in a ruck only a few steps from their own in goal in one of the most desperate defensive plays in living memory. Four years later, Ireland enjoyed revenge as they knocked the Pumas out of the tournament in the pool stage.
Pundits have the Ireland-Argentina match marked as the defining game in pool D (which some hacks with a special talent for names have dubbed “The Group of Death”), as France is widely predicted to smash both of them and snatch the top spot. Since the pundits are expected to know what they are talking about, I’ll take their word on it and wait expectantly for that last pool game.
But right now, somewhere deep inside, I will be rooting together with 39-million other Argentinian fans for the Pumas to pull the upset of the tournament and beat France. If it happens, rugby fever will invade this country and the Pumas will be “our guys.” If not, what else is there to expect from that bunch of toffs anyway?
At least an Argentina-France game is sure to give the refs a lot of work as neither team is really into the “being gentle to your opponent’s body” attitude towards life. And when you know from the offset that your team is doomed not to win the title, tough play at least offers some slight compensation.