Agustin Pichot has never been slow to bang a drum for Argentine rugby and yesterday the much-travelled Pumas captain, who has led his side to a first World Cup semi-final against South Africa, brought out the full Cozy Powell kit with crashing cymbals. "I think we are not in the picture of world rugby so people aren't aware of how we have improved," said the Stade Français and former Richmond and Bristol scrum-half.
"Ask the South Africans and New Zealanders to name five Argentina players and they wouldn't know them. We know them all and we have that kind of respect for them."
Pichot's outburst summed up the subtext to Los Pumas' arrival in the last four, not to mention the No 4 position in the latest world rankings to South Africa's No 3, on the back of winning Pool D ahead of France and Ireland, and knocking Scotland out 17-13 in last Sunday's quarter-final. The clamour for Argentina to be invited into an annual competition has been heard everywhere and from everyone, it seems, other than from the people with the power to make it happen.
Jake White, though his task as Springbok coach is to arrest the Pumas' development, concurred yesterday after overseeing his squad's workout at the Stade de France.
"A long time ago I was saying bring Argentina in, whether it's into the Six Nations or Tri Nations or Super 14," said White. "Remember it was South Africa who sent our top coaches Doc [Danie] Craven and Isak van Heerden over to Argentina in the 1960s. They are playing now not just to win the World Cup but for an opportunity to progress."
It is impossible to say whether the extra incentive will make much difference come kick-off time. Pichot, his swanky half-back partner Juan Martin Hernandez and most of the rest of the Pumas are doing nicely, thank you, with contracts at top European clubs. They would argue the need to leave a legacy for those who come after. A World Cup final appearance could do untold good for rugby in football-mad Argentina.
South Africa have been there, done that with victory on home soil in 1995. They have marched to within 160 minutes of a repeat in switchback style: a 36-0 hammering of England followed by a close-run thing against Tonga then a tooth-and-nail fight to get past Fiji in last Sunday's quarter-final. "Argentina kick more than most and live off scraps," said White. "I don't know whether that will help us to counter-attack but for us it will be about getting into their half and applying pressure. The bottom line is that Pichot is in charge of that team and is vital we put pressure on numbers nine and 10."
White and the Pumas' coach, Marcelo Loffreda – who is to join Leicester after the World Cup – are good friends. Loffreda has been a guest of White's at a Super 14 match and they have talked through the secrets of the Pumas' cherished bajada: the eight-man shove in the scrum.
"Argentina are unique," said White. "All their clubs take a pride in the way they scrummage and maul. And I expected them to go well against France, as so many of the Argentina team play here. They beat the French who beat New Zealand so they must be the favourites for this match. They will have most of the crowd cheering for them too."
Given that Os du Randt and his friends in the South African pack would happily grind opposition noses in the dirt all evening long, it may not be a festival of running. It was the rolling maul which brought two crucial tries against the Fijians. But who knows?
Argentina showed before the World Cup they can fling the ball around when they fancy it – the outside backs Lucas Borges and Ignacio Corleto are frighteningly potent when given the chance – and then there is the Springbok admiral of the fleet-footed, Bryan Habana.
"We are usually the underdogs and it suits us," cautioned Loffreda, acknowledging the Pumas have never beaten South Africa or New Zealand. "It puts our minds in the perfect place."
White dismissed reports that his post would be up for renewal by the South African Rugby Union next week, and reiterated that his contract runs until 31 December. However, he also said he was "sure something will be coming up" elsewhere in the world, should his need arise. He likened the experience of his team with a South African record 653 caps to England's 2003 World Cup winners and spoke of a "winning mentality which is contagious" as he recalled the Bulls' Super 14 final victory earlier this year. "A lot of the guys here have forgotten how to lose," White said, tempting fate just a little given that the Bulls won the final against the Durban-based Sharks who are more heavily represented in the Boks' 22. The referee for that final? Steve Walsh, of New Zealand, the very man with the whistle tomorrow.
Skills, steaks and songs Key clashes in tomorrow's match
* FLY-HALF Juan Martin Hernandez improvised with a left-footed dropped goal in the grinding quarter-final win over Scotland last week, and as one of two Pumas up for the IRB's world player of the year award (the other is Felipe Contepomi, with South Africa's Bryan Habana also on the shortlist) he is almost obliged to produce something special. Butch James rewrote his reputation as nothing but a big-hit merchant with a brave and varied contribution after a bang on the head at Twickenham last autumn.
* SCRUMOS du Randt was not tempted back to Springbok ranks by coach Jake White after semi-retiring to his 2000-acre ranch to engage in pit-a-pat rugby. If the Pumas fancy a ruck, the Ox will give it to them. Argentina's love of the scrum is as legendary as their penchant for a good steak. The Boks prefer their meat red and raw too. There could be blood on the Stade de France grass.
* TEMPERAMENT When it comes to the crying game otherwise known as the national anthems, Argentina are up with the best of them, otherwise known at this World Cup as the Portuguese. Expect 22 sets of quivering lower lips during "Marcha de la Patria" (March of the Fatherland). The Boks are a more stoical bunch and, having never lost to Argentina, will trade on a perceived psychological advantage.Reuse content