As the final whistle sounded at Parc des Princes on 19 October 2007, Argentina knew that they had arrived. Agustín Pichot led his side from the field after a 34-10 defeat of hosts France in the Rugby World Cup Bronze Final to wild acclaim, setting foot on the road to the Pumas’ inclusion in The Rugby Championship in the process.
The diminutive scrum half - who retired from Tests following the tournament - was among several world-class talents in that side, with Felipe Contepomi, Juan Martín Hernández, Gonzalo Longo Elía, Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe and Rodrigo Roncero also on show, and their legacy was to be one of change on the world stage.
Argentina’s opening fixture in The Rugby Championship – a 27-6 defeat to South Africa in Cape Town last weekend – featured a radically altered cast list. Hernández, Fernández Lobbe, Roncero and Horacio Agulla remained, but the new breed of Pumas have now been tasked with picking up the baton and running with it.
In the immediate aftermath of Rugby World Cup 2007, wheels were set in motion to ensure that they would have a chance to do so. Argentina’s on-field displays at the tournament left the International Rugby Board and its Member Unions in no doubt – it was time to find them a home in a regular competition.
Following a large-scale conference in Woking, England, it was unanimously agreed that Argentina would be welcomed into a major southern hemisphere tournament following a four-year period of investment and development to improve structures and build strength-in-depth. It was also confirmed that Argentina, a country with a proud amateur history, would begin paying a leading group of players to ensure a route to the top of the sport and also the possibility that elite players could one day ply their trade on home soil.
Underwriting a lot of these developments was money garnered from the huge financial success of Rugby World Cup 2007. The IRB committed to a US$10m payment plan – in part to cover any shortfalls, but also to ensure that pathways were created from grassroots to professional level. The Argentina Jaguars – an ‘A’ selection – have emerged in recent years as a result, contesting the Churchill Cup and IRB Nations Cup.
After plenty of hard work, Argentina were formally invited to join The Rugby Championship in 2009 and their place was confirmed in the wake of Rugby World Cup 2011, when they again progressed to the knockout stages. An important amendment to IRB Regulation 9 – governing player release – then ensured that leading Pumas would be released from their European clubs for the tournament.
“I personally feel today that a struggle of many years has been closed, today we’re part of the world, as we deserved,” a delighted Pichot said.
With their place in a regular competition secured, all eyes will be on the Pumas to see if they can replicate the feats of 2007 at Rugby World Cup 2015. Job number one for Santiago Phelan’s side is securing a rise up the IRB World Rankings, but that will not be straightforward against the might of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Nothing worth having comes easy, though, and the Pumas have a chance to heavily influence the RWC 2015 Pool Allocation Draw in December with a couple of high-profile scalps, perhaps beginning with this weekend’s rematch against the Springboks at Estadio Malvinas Argentinas in Mendoza.
“I do believe that there is a great opportunity for young players to achieve their goal and compete against Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, to improve and to go to future Rugby World Cups with expectations of actually being able to win it,” Contepomi recently admitted.
The Unión Argentina de Rugby has also made further positive steps towards ensuring a strong international future, going as far as to confirm RWC 2011 winning coach Sir Graham Henry in an advisory role. The former Auckland and Wales coach is endeavouring to create “a national programme that will ultimately lead to a more competitive international team”. Phelan put it simply: “He’s coming to work with us and make our play better.”
Argentina’s young guns proved that there is plenty to come from them in the future by finishing a best-ever fourth at this year’s IRB Junior World Championship, losing out to hosts and eventual winners South Africa in the semi final after victories over Australia, France and Scotland.
There will be teething problems along the way, but the talent and drive behind the Pumas is plain to see. Rugby World Cup 2007 gave a golden generation a chance to shine, next time out the new breed are going to be playing for keeps.