When a win is placed among the greatest in the history of any sport, it speaks volumes for the significance it has upon a nation.
Argentina’s 25-15 win against the All Blacks in the third round of the Tri Nations showcased some of the best rugby ever played by a Puma side and is already in the country’s sporting pantheon.
Up until the game at Bankwest Stadium – a sporting arena now cemented in Argentinian folklore – Los Pumas had never beaten New Zealand, a solitary 21-all draw in 1985 the only hiccup for the All Blacks. There had been three close calls, but games always ended in a win for the men in black.
Now, jumping two places in the World Rugby Men’s Rankings, Los Pumas have beaten every top-level nation at least once – although a local Argentine newspaper has reported otherwise. An apparent unavenged loss to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1965, claiming that there was still a scalp to conquer.
The manner in which the New Zealand win was achieved, however, and the process leading to it, make it all the more impressive.
Far from ideal preparations
“A book will be written about this win one day,” quipped coach Mario Ledesma in the post-match press conference.
The COVID-19 pandemic affected many rugby nations in many different ways, and the game in this South American country was hard hit. Since early warm-up matches in late February and early March, no rugby has been played in a country of around 125,000 players. Argentina’s continuing lockdown has ensured that the game still has to wait, and there will likely be no rugby played at all as summer fast approaches.
Jaguares, the professional team run by the Argentine Rugby Union, played a handful of games and had to be disbanded. This left many Pumas players with the freedom to move to Europe; those who did not find hard-to-get contracts were left waiting for lockdown to ease.
After receiving special government permission, a large squad began a training camp. Positive coronavirus cases for more than 20 players and staff members soon followed.
With Uruguay leading the region in terms of health and safety, they moved to Montevideo and a month later travelled to Australia, once Tri Nations 2020 was confirmed.
A third quarantine ensued, but it only made the players’ resolve stronger. When the Argentina-based players finally got together with the 13 that flew later from Europe – who also had to undergo a strict two-week quarantine on arrival – all of the cogs were in place.
Tri Nations 2020 | New Zealand v Argentina - Rd 3 Highlights— Super Rugby/Tri Nations (@SuperRugby) November 14, 2020
A passionate Argentina outfit has orchestrated one of rugby’s biggest-ever boilovers, @lospumas beating the New Zealand @AllBlacks for the first time in their history.#TriNations2020 #NZLvARG pic.twitter.com/T2AxRbCmn8
It wasn’t so much the win, but the manner in which Argentina beat the All Blacks for the first time, controlling them and reducing them to a team unable to get rid of a sticky defence. Nicolás Sánchez scored 25 points in a man of the match performance, yet every one of his teammates showed why they were there.
All of them had come through the high performance factory that started back in 2009. Sánchez, for one, joined in its second year. As the factory has grown, players have become identified at a younger age and introduced to high performance in their provinces before making it to the national centres, Los Pumitas, Jaguares, Ceibos (a second professional team playing in the inaugural Superliga Americana de Rugby), Argentina XV or sevens.
Take inside-centre Santiago Chocobares, who at 21 made his test debut in Sydney after spending two years with Argentina U20s. His transition to senior rugby was not in the easiest of conditions, yet he was ready and shone every time he tackled, ran or passed.
“Players such as Chocobares are coming through. We have a large number of young players and they are the future of Argentine rugby,” said Ledesma.
Only a handful of the 45 players currently in Australia have not played for its U20s side.
Next up: the Wallabies
“Our minds are now set on Australia. The game finished, we celebrated as we had to and we’ve started to think about Australia,” said outside-centre Matías Orlando. “Certainly, the next three games will be much harder than this one as they now are in a position to study our game plan.”
Looking back at the match, Argentina’s strategy was very simple: combine ferocious defence with aggression at every breakdown – in doing so, turning over valuable possession – and a kicking game that forced the All Blacks to change their own tactics.
“Maybe, having no previous games and not showing how we wanted to play was to our advantage; understandably, teams will be read, they know what we want to do but we have to be ready and aim for more.”
If anything, Ledesma is well surrounded: his coaching staff has five former Pumas and a certain Michael Cheika.
The former Wallaby head coach in the last two Rugby World Cups had Ledesma as his assistant in England in 2015. They’re now reunited and Cheika is hungry for more success, even if it is against his own country.