Pumas thrill a nation with World Cup tango in Paris

After years of being ignored by the rugby establishment, Argentina's romp to the World Cup semi-finals is massive news back home, writes Simon Turnbull reports from Washington
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The Independent Online

It was past midnight in the bowels of the Stade de France when the two boys from Buenos Aires came clowning along the corridor from the direction of the home dressing room. One was banging on a drum and singing away merrily. The other was wearing a tiger-head hat and doing a passable impression of a dance. They were the Fernandez Lobbe brothers, both Sale Sharks and proud Pumas. Like the rest of Argentina's ground-breaking rugby union team, they have at least one more chance to tango in Paris.

"This is crazy," Juan Martin, the tiger-headed flanker, said. "We are one of the four best teams in the world. When you see guys like Agustin Pichot and Gonzalo Longo crying in the changing rooms – the most experienced guys in the team – you realise what it really means."

What it means for Argentina, having seen off Scotland 19-13 on Sunday, is a maiden appearance in a World Cup semi-final, against South Africa in the Stade de France this coming Sunday. "This is a bigger success than we could have imagined," Marcelo Loffreda said, casting his mind back through the last seven years he has spent as coach of Los Pumas and, before that, through the 16 years he spent as a centre in an Argentine side merely making up the number on the international scene. "For Argentina, this is a huge achievement. This is one of the greatest achievements in Argentina's history."

Whether he meant in Argentina's sporting history was not quite clear amid the emotion spilling into the Parisian night. It is certainly, though, a remarkable achievement by Loffreda, who becomes a full-time professional coach only when Argentina's World Cup odyssey comes to an end and he swaps his part-time role with the Pumas for a job as head coach of the Leicester Tigers. A graduate in civil engineering, he has been guiding his country's national side while holding down a day job as a sales manager for Topper, a clothing company in Buenos Aires – not quite the Sir Clive approach that won the last World Cup.

Back home in Argentina, World Cup fever had already caused the kick-off in Sunday's Buenos Aires football derby between Boca Juniors and River Plate – El Superclasico – to be brought forward by two hours. And, while the Paris quarter-final match hardly inspired the neutrals in attendance, the reaction in Argentina has been one of unbridled exhilaration and national pride.

"The Pumas' revolution extends beyond the limits of the oval-balled universe," Santiago Roccetti trumpeted in La Nacion with a nod, it would seem, to the 40th anniversary of the death of Ernesto Guevara. Che Guevara, as he was more widely known to the world, had a passion for rugby – playing at inside centre for the CASI club in San Isidro and founding a magazine devoted to the sport, by the name of Tackle – before being bitten by the revolutionary bug. "Like an army of ungovernable guerrillas," Roccetti continued, "the Pumas go forth to conquer more and more of a pitch once set aside for the few – those who claim themselves to be the guardians of the game.

"This gesture transcends sport; it is a feat of social solidarity. The battle these indomitable soldiers do against adversity is an example for all to follow – a model of sacrifice, of bravery, of integrity. There are no limits for his team of giants. There are no frontiers for those who sacrifice their bodies and soul for the dream. The empire of the powerful has collapsed. This is the era of the Puma."

That much remains to be seen. Having overcome France and Ireland with such impressive assurance, there were signs of fatigue as the Pumas clawed their way somewhat wearily past Scotland. Still, there is a unique spirit that binds the Argentine team and that the Springboks will have to find a way of breaking if they are to halt the Pumas in their tracks. "Maybe we are not the best players technically," Pichot, Argentina's sprightly veteran scrum-half and captain, said, "but we are a really tight-knit team. We face each day, each challenge together as a family.

"Against Scotland we did play a weaker game. We were tired. We did not come into the match fresh. But if you play with your heart and your soul, and if you play for each other, it becomes something more than a game. This team is not about Agustin Pichot, Juan Martin Hernandez and Felipe Contepomi. It's more than that. It is about every player giving everything for each other."

Pichot, like Che Guevara before him, is a product of the CASI club. Like all but one of the Argentine XV who played on Sunday, however, he had to come to Europe to make his way as a professional in the game – in his case with Richmond and Bristol before joining Stade Français. Now 32 and about to move to the Metro Racing club in Paris, Pichot is a survivor of the one previous Argentine team that played in a World Cup quarter-final, losing 47-26 to France in 1999.

For all his modesty, Pichot also happens to be one of the supreme world-class talents in the Pumas' team – together with the stand-off Hernandez and the place-kicking inside-centre Felipe Contepomi, who were both nominated yesterday for the International Rugby Board's Player of the Year Award. "We've got a base of players that other countries would die for," Les Cusworth, Argentina's director of rugby, ventured before the quarter-final, with little exaggeration.

The one-time England and Leicester fly-half is married to an Argentine, lives near Buenos Aires, and has played a key role in the rise of his adopted country's rugby team. Cusworth has long banged the drum for the inclusion of a European-based Argentine team in a two-tiered expansion of what is now the Six Nations' Championship. Thus far, the Pumas have been ignored by the established power-brokers in both the northern and southern hemispheres. In the meantime, they continue to make a song and dance for themselves at the global top table.

Argentina's World Cup record

1987

Went out in pool stage. Finished bottom of Pool 3 behind champions New Zealand, Fiji and Italy.

1991

Went out in pool stage. Finished bottom of Pool C behind champions Australia, Wales and Western Samoa.

1995

Went out in pool stage. Finished bottom of Pool B behind England, Western Samoa and Italy despite an improved performance.

1999

Went out in quarter-finals. Defeat to Wales was followed by victories over Samoa and Japan. Triumphed in a quarter-final play-off over Ireland 28-24, before falling 47-26 to France.

2003

Went out in pool stage. Finished third in Pool A behind Australia and Ireland, ahead of Romania and Namibia.

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