Marcelo Loffreda, Argentina’s rugby coach, was happy at mid-week. The main reason was, obviously, that the Pumas’ victory over Ireland on Sunday enabled his team to top their pool — with the best defensive record in the World Cup — and therefore face Scotland in the second round instead of the All Blacks.
Loffreda was also very happy because the Argentinian football association moved the kick-off time of tomorrow’s Boca-River match, the biggest derby in the country, an hour earlier, to avoid overlaps with the Pumas quarterfinal match. “It proves,” said Loffreda, “that not everything is about football.”
Boca-River is no minor event in Argentina. It is, in fact, one of the biggest football matches in the world. The British weekly the Observer said last year that watching Boca-River was the top “sporting thing you must do before you die”. The match eclipses all other news in Argentina and, next to it, the rest of the local football games fall into near oblivion. Never mind other sports.
A few weeks ago, as the Pumas readied themselves to play the World Cup opener against France, I wrote that, in Argentina, rugby is far more a sport of the wealthy upper classes than of the masses (my exact, ironic definition was that it is a “toffs’ sport”) and that only big wins could change this situation. Two important victories later, the greater public has started to warm to the team, as evidenced by the rescheduling of Boca-River.
The appeal of the Pumas is not limited to Argentina. In a poll this week in the English newspaper the Guardian, three journalists out of nine had Argentina playing in the final. I differ with the prediction, because for Argentina to become a finalist would likely imply beating the Boks in the semis (if the Boks defeat Fiji, as is widely expected). Then again, I did not see the Pumas defeating France.
I am not saying anything new by stating that Argentina and a number of smaller teams (mainly Fiji and Tonga) have set the flavour of the tournament. This may well be blamed on the disappointing form of most Six Nations teams. The laudable bottom line, however, is that Argentina and Fiji have both managed to capitalise on the bad shape of others, taking their game to a superior level.
Before the World Cup started, Simon Kuper, sports columnist of the Financial Times, defined Argentina as the misfits of world rugby. The main idea behind the definition was that the Pumas don’t belong to any of the two major rugby groups (Six Nations on one side, Tri-Nations on the other) and yet are a highly respected team. Because they are misfits who were never meant to enter the quarterfinals as one of the two best teams in the championship and much less to be heralded as likely finalists, the Argentinean performance has a special glow to it.
The reason the Pumas have caught the eye of foreign audiences is pretty clear: they defend ferociously (one of the top tacklers in the first match, for example, was a prop, Rodrigo Roncero), their hearts are undeniably into the games, they are hungry and they have some eye-catching talent (Juan Martín Hernández leads the lot in this sense). It all combines for an explosive mix, underscored in the eyes of rugby lovers the world round by the low-form of others.
Argentina stand a good chance to beat Scotland tomorrow, as the entire starting XV is expected on the pitch after a week in which key players were at risk of missing the game due to injuries. Winning would do the popularity of the sport well in the country. It would also do world rugby a favour as everybody enjoys a good, exciting team and, up till now, Argentina is up to the task.