First published in Daily Maverick 168.
Argentina’s historic 25-15 win over New Zealand in the unlikely setting of Sydney’s western suburb of Parramatta last week was their first, at their 30th attempt, going back to October 1985.
The result has naturally created more headlines about the All Blacks’ decline than the Pumas’ excellence on the day. It’s a result that rightly shook the rugby world, although it’s not anywhere near the upset when Japan beat the Springboks in 2015, or Western Samoa beat Wales in 1991.
Argentina have been part of the Rugby Championship since 2012 and in Super Rugby, in the form of the Jaguares, from 2016. In 2019, the Jaguares were the Super Rugby runners-up, losing to the Crusaders in the final.
Although the Pumas’ recent results have been mediocre, as a rugby nation Argentina have built a strong culture and gradually built depth in every position. They’ve improved their ill-discipline and after a period of forgetting their tradition of forward power in search of a more expansive game, they have returned to their roots.
The Pumas’ set piece and tight loose play was sensational against the All Blacks. It’s no wonder, because head coach Mario Ledesma was one of the world’s greatest hookers when he played. He was raised on a culture of forward dominance and he’s gradually reminded his team of Argentina’s traditional strength.
Rassie Erasmus stated on numerous occasions as he guided the Boks to the 2019 World Cup title that the most fundamental pillar of the resurgence was playing to South Africa’s traditional strengths. Erasmus demanded physicality, uncompromising defence and an immovable set piece as the foundation for the Boks. Everything else was layered on top.
Current England mentor Eddie Jones, when he was coach of an Australian team that dominated the Tri-Nations in the early 2000s, was asked whether South Africa should try to play like the Wallabies.
Jones’s Wallabies were a heady maze of dummy runners, skip passes and silky innovation. Jones pondered the question for a millisecond before replying that teams should be “culturally sympathetic” to the way they play the game.
His meaning was clear – don’t stray from what made you great, but rather add to that foundation. The Pumas strayed too far from it in the past few years as they tried, as many have done before, to play like the All Blacks. Obviously, as the best team on the planet for most of the professional era, the All Black blueprint is the most studied.
But New Zealand’s jaw-dropping skill levels and athleticism are not created in a vacuum at Super Rugby and Test level. Their excellence is ingrained from early childhood.
Junior teams play in weight divisions so that the biggest nine-year-old doesn’t simply run over tiny opponents and score. That player doesn’t develop skills and those he tramples are also not learning much.
By putting children of similar size up against one another in those crucial formative years, the improvement of skills, the appreciation of space and better techniques become second nature to New Zealanders. Physiology and mentality then separate the great from the very good as they mature.
The best rise through the ranks where they reach top provincial rugby, only lacking in experience and the more technical aspects of the pro game. They do not lack the skills to cope at the highest level.
Of course, there is more nuance to it too. New Zealand is littered with quality coaches and is a country where both male and female are rugby obsessed. There is probably not a sports team on Earth that is more revered and more passionately judged than the All Blacks. In New Zealand, everyone’s an expert and everyone is a selector.
Whether Ledesma has ever heard Jones’s phrase of “culturally sympathetic” is academic, because he has returned the Pumas to their base strengths.
And against a jaded All Blacks last week, the physicality and intensity the Pumas brought to the contest, led on the field by the indefatigable Pablo Matera, was too much for New Zealand. It’s not an excuse, but it was the All Blacks’ fifth Test in six weeks and they looked off the pace.
Argentina would have sensed this was a real opportunity. Ledesma and his assistants would have targeted that game knowing that they had the advantages of surprise and All Black fatigue.
Jones (there he is again) did the same hatchet job on the Boks in Brighton in 2015 when he was Japan’s head coach. He targeted that match, knowing that his team, if perfectly prepared, could catch an overconfident and complacent Boks off-guard. Painfully for South Africans, they did.
The All Blacks denied being complacent and overconfident after their loss to the Pumas, which is all they could say. The challenge now for the Pumas is to maintain the level they displayed in Parramatta throughout their next three matches.
For New Zealand, how they respond in the coming weeks will give a clearer indication of whether the loss was an anomaly, or the beginning of a serious decline for the dominant force in the game.
You can bet the All Blacks will be leaning on their rugby culture for answers, just like Ledesma and the Pumas returned to their culture to achieve their greatest moment. DM168
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