Argentina deserve their place on the world stage

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The Independent Online

If the Rugby Football Union chooses to stage its version of Christians v Lions with Twickenham as the Middlesex Colosseum, that is its own affair. What is evident is that encounters such as last Saturday's match with Romania have little to do with the game of rugby.

It might have been different. A decade ago or more, Romania looked like becoming a power in the rugby world: a minor power, maybe, but a force nevertheless, more formidable than Italy today and on a par with Argentina.

Most of the players in those days all seemed to have attained the rank of captain in the Romanian army. Then came the collapse not only of communism but of the national side as well. I have read that there was a shameful lack of support from the International Rugby Board and others who were in a position to help. I do not know whether this is true or not. What is manifest is that rugby in Argentina survived and prospered in political conditions which were every bit as difficult as those in Romania – not least in the breakdown, now more or less repaired, in relations between this country and the South American state.

The performances against Wales and Scotland make me wonder whether Argentina rather than Italy should have been added to the old Five Nations' Championship a few season ago. It may be objected that Argentina is not a European nation. It is not even in the northern hemisphere. But should this matter?

Many years ago I wrote in this column that rugby had yet to come to terms with the invention of the jet engine. Tours to South Africa and the Antipodes, whether by the Lions or by individual countries, could become shorter. Clubs could play other far-flung clubs. At the time, it seemed almost visionary stuff. Indeed, several former international players, then engaged in rugby journalism, approached me to say that in their own playing days they would not have wanted to be rushed hither and yon.

Perhaps they were right. What looked idealistic in the late 1980s is commonplace today. Last weekend alone involved Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Romania, South Africa and Tonga. It was too much for even the most dedicated fan to take on board. I did not unsay anything I had written all those years ago. But this, I thought, was ridiculous. Nor does it seem that the fear of flying brought about by the events of 11 September has yet had much effect on rugby, even though some of the Australians were reluctant to make the trip.

Of all the encounters on offer, the most significant was France's victory over Australia, seven days after their win over South Africa. And yet this was the most under-reported of them all. It may be that the French are flattering to deceive, as the racing writers used to say – an area in which the Irish used to be the leading practitioners. But it is equally possible that under their somewhat grim-visaged coach, Bernard Laporte, France may be back to their old ways, in the days before their recent hesitant spell set in.

Laporte's main problem is whether to restore the metronomic Gerald Merceron, when and if he is fit, in place of the younger Frederic Michalak at outside-half. This is one of the problems of success as a Tory cabinet minister once called them.

Graham Henry, the Wales coach, is not in such a happy position. But his principal problem likewise concerns the outside-half position. Iestyn Harris had a better game against Tonga than against Argentina. Then he played outside-half throughout. Last Saturday he played inside centre for most of the match but switched to his former position for the later stages. From Henry's hints, it seems that this is the position he will occupy against Australia this Sunday.

Henry has got himself into a mess entirely of his own making through a previous hint – though it was really more than a hint – that he wanted to play Stephen Jones at inside centre. It seems to me that, whichever way you slice it, it is pointless to have both Jones and Harris in the same Wales side: Jones doing the drop-outs and the punts to touch, Harris taking the shots at goal – and very well he has done it so far. My solution would be to play Harris at fullback, where he would flourish in the modern game as he perhaps would not have done even 10 years ago.

It only remains to say that Keith Wood ought not to feel as disappointed as he says he is over Ireland's performance against New Zealand. It was clear that, once the All Blacks had collected their wits and secured their bearings, they are the likely winners of the next World Cup under yet another grim-visaged coach in John Mitchell.