Scots wary as purring Pumas go in for the kill

Frank Hadden's men must somehow find a way to break Argentina's spirit. By Simon Turnbull in Paris
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The Independent Online

It is early Friday evening in a hotel in Neuilly-sur-Seine, the Parisian suburb that is home to Gérard Depardieu and Jean Reno, and where Bette Davis passed away in 1989. It lies to the west of the city, on the edge of the Bois de Bolougne, a sprint away from Stade Yves de Manoir, or Stade Colombes as it was known when Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, the flying Scotland rugby union wing turned 400m runner, famously struck Olympic gold in 1924.

Eight decades on, it is the rugby players of Argentina who are riding a chariot of fire in these parts. After spending the day at their Neuilly base, it is not difficult to see why they have gained such momentum heading into their quarter-final date with Scotland at the Stade de France tonight.

Agustin Pichot and his players have trained, come back for lunch and the team announcement press conference, and been up to their rooms for an afternoon nap. For the past hour or so they have been milling around the lobby, at one with the world and one another.

Along the corridor, next to the coffee bar and the restaurant, the Fernandez Lobbe brothers – the lock Ignacio and the flanker Juan Martin, both Sale Sharks – have been a picture of contentment, gently bouncing an infant on their laps. The baby's mother has been taking snaps for the family album. The sight of Rodrigo Roncero and Mario Ledesma, two of the Pumas' formidable front-row enforcers, stopping to coo and generally go all wobbly at the knees is quite a spectacle to behold.

In the courtyard outside, there are similar scenes of happy families. Three players stroll along the corridor and one inadvertently walks past a group of starry-eyed local kids hunting for autographs. He is called back by his colleagues, not just to apply his mark but to engage in prolonged pleasantries. It is difficult to imagine an atmosphere of such chilled contentment breezing through the corridors of the New Zealand or England team hotels.

Earlier in the day, at Scotland's base on the south-west fringe of the city, Frank Hadden spoke of Argentina being "like a club side". The Scotland coach was not wrong. The spirit of togetherness in evidence behind the scenes has been clear to see in the heat of battle. The hosts threw the kitchen sink and all the plumbing at them on the opening night but the Argentine team held firm. It was a similar story against Ireland last Sunday – the machine remained in supremely efficient gear for most of the 80 minutes.

It did more than that, in fact. It purred along for much of the time, driven not just by the pack but by the irrepressible Pichot at scrum-half and the masterful Juan Martin Hernandez, the Maradona of the oval-ball game, in the No10 shirt. As Les Cusworth reflects: "We've got a bunch of players here that other countries would die for."

Once the No10 of England and Leicester, Cusworth is now Argentina's director of rugby. Married to an Argentine and living in Hurlingham, a town in Buenos Aires province, the 53-year-old Yorkshireman has played a vital role in the development of the Pumas, assisting Marcelo Loffreda, Argentina's coach of seven years and soon to be Leicester's. There is something of the Leicester spirit of the 70s and 80s that Cusworth has helped to bring to this exceptional team.

"These players have real pride in playing for Argentina," he says. "In 40 years of being involved in rugby I've seen nothing like it." And this from a man who played in two teams that beat the All Blacks – the Midlands and England – in the same week in 1983.

To win tonight, Scotland must find a way of breaking the Argentine spirit. It will not be easy, even with Chris Paterson's deadly right boot ready to punish any indiscretion remotely within range of the posts. "Argentina have gone up a few notches and they've done it by staying together," Hadden had said at the Scotland team hotel. "Slowly but surely Argentina have turned into a club side. That's ideally where everyone would like to be."

Scotland are not there yet, though they have made significant progress since Hadden succeeded Matt Williams as head coach two years ago. Cusworth, whose job it is to dissect video analysis of Argentina's opponents, is a fan. "Scotland are the most improved team in the tournament," he says. "They have excellent line-out forwards, a good scrum and cracking kickers. Hadden is a very astute coach."

Hadden would be flattered at the compliment. He cites the epiphany in his rugby education as the occasion he played for Headingley against a Leicester side putting Chalkie White's passing game into practice. "Clive Woodward and Paul Dodge were in the back-line and Cusworth was at stand-off," he recalled. "I was at full-back that day and just watched the Leicester players run rings round us."

Tonight at the Stade de France, Hadden will be watching at pitch-side as his players attempt to put a ring fence around the Pumas and their burgeoning World Cup challenge.

Watch Scotland take on Argentina on ITV1 this evening, kick-off 8pm

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