Desperate days for the poor relations

Tim Glover discovers splits are growing in game's global family
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The Independent Online

Argentina are perceived, at least in the public eye, as a light sandwich filling between the visits of Australia and South Africa to Twickenham, a slice of Fray Bentos among the upper crust. This is a misconception, but whereas tickets for England's grudge matches against the Wallabies and the Springboks needed no sales pitch, the box-office reaction for the game against the Pumas on Saturday has been a lot cooler.

Argentina are perceived, at least in the public eye, as a light sandwich filling between the visits of Australia and South Africa to Twickenham, a slice of Fray Bentos among the upper crust. This is a misconception, but whereas tickets for England's grudge matches against the Wallabies and the Springboks needed no sales pitch, the box-office reaction for the game against the Pumas on Saturday has been a lot cooler.

South America doesn't fit in England's battles with the southern hemisphere, but the suggestion that they will not be a pushover is like saying the US presidential election was close. Of the countries outside the established order, Argentina are easily the most dangerous and successful. The exception to a depressing trend, the Pumas remain a threat. The other fringe players are in jeopardy.

The International Board like to refer to the growth of the global game. This may be true in terms of the number of countries playing, but the discrepancy between quantity and quality seems to be wider than ever. The World Cup quarterfinalists last year were Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, France, England, Wales, Scotland and Argentina, who knocked out Ireland.

Italy have joined the European Championship, and a weekend in Rome is a welcome addition to London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Dublin and Paris, but only a Roman would say they have crossed the Rubicon. In the Six Nations, Italy conceded an average of 45 points a match. In the Heineken Cup this season, with the exception of Treviso, they have been outclassed.

Poor old Romania, who used to be good for a tilt at the superpowers, haven't got a pot to spit in. One of their leading clubs, Dinamo Bucuresti, had to withdraw from European competition because they couldn't afford to travel.

The case of Samoa is even more disturbing. If they had the wherewithal to keep their players they could beat anybody. As it is, the southern hemisphere take their best but won't give them an international match, which would provide Samoa, at present stripped of their stars over a pay row, with some badly needed funds. Meanwhile Japan, crushed by Ireland last week, are still waiting for their sun to rise, and North America remains a backwater. Canada mix it on the odd occasion without making the top grade and the US Eagles are more preyed upon than preying.

These countries have not profited from professionalism. Argentina, on the other hand, have found a balance which at least allows them to compete. Their clubs remain amateur and the majority of players have not given up their day jobs, although half their international squad are good enough to play overseas. At Bristol, for example, Agustin Pichot has been joined by Felipe Contepomi and Eduardo Simone. To accommodate the players, who receive about £3,500 in allowances on international duty, the coach, Marcello Loffreda, found it easier to hold a squad session in Bordeaux than Buenos Aires.

Last Sunday the Pumas lost 33-37 to South Africa in Buenos Aires. The game was held, for the first time, at the River Plate Stadium, the scene of Argentina's football World Cup glory in 1978, and the good news is that it attracted a record crowd of 53,000. Incidentally, Pichot, a friend of Maradona's, enjoyed a reunion with the troubled one, who was home "on leave" from rehab in Cuba.

The Springboks just held on after playing an all-out running game - they didn't kick the ball until the 73rd minute - which didn't prevent the contest from being ultra-physical. Four Pumas needed brain scans and the wing Diego Albanese suffered a serious mouth injury after taking an elbow while making a tackle. While the squad were at Twickenham yesterday, Albanese was recovering from surgery.

A feature of Argentine rugby is the huge power of their front row, and a speciality is the eight-man shove. "As a nation they produce some of the biggest, strongest men you will ever come up against," Jason Leonard said. "They were born to play in the scrum and their mentality is, 'This is good for us, let's make it work'. They would all qualify for parts in a Bond film as the nasty."

Leonard, who won his 85th cap yesterday, made his debut in Argentina in 1990. "It was the first visit by the English since the Falklands war, and passions were running high." He captained England against the Pumas at Twickenham in 1996, celebrating with the only try of his international career. It proved to be the match-winner.

Should he play on Saturday, Leonard, the world's most capped prop, would become the most capped Englishman of all time, overtaking Rory Underwood. It would be the first time a prop has ever passed a wing. His opponent will be the Argentine tight-head Omar Hasan, who could mark the occasion with a suitable aria: Omar is an opera singer.

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