independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

New faces to light up old rivalry

Ireland's Donncha O'Callaghan tussles with Rimas Alvarez Kairelis of Argentina at Croke Park in 2008

"That's the way it was between us and them. Bad Blood." Ronan O'Gara writing Argentina in his autobiography.

" Ireland? A derby? I don't feel that rivalry." Argentina back-row Juan Manuel Leguizamon speaking in Dublin this week.

IT WAS so often the gory game. So often, more about the guts than the glory. Familiarity breeding contempt and all that. Sport as spaghetti western.

Argentina and Ireland traded highs and lows as often as they did blows; their meetings in World Cups offered the prism through which an increasingly fraught relationship was constructed between 1999 and 2007.

Latterly, however, what had been a gore-fest has become a bore-fest.

Just as Clint Eastwood reimagined the western for a post-modern audience, so too Argentina and Ireland are threatening to consign their brutal past forever to the history books.

Ironically, what initially began as a searing narrative that pitched unyielding underdogs against affluent aristocrats has been slowly rewritten.

At one time we only knew the image of the gouging gauchos, impoverished and snubbed by rugby's cosseted elite, who were often left with no option but to indulge in the game's dark arts to extract revenge against their superiors.

They revelled in extracting blood from their superiors, literally and metaphorically. Hence Ireland, who most potently represented – not to mention housed – the IRB elite that perennially shunned Argentina, were assailed with anarchic glee by Los Pumas. This country's sneering disregard for its poorer cousins reeked of prestige and privilege.

How the tables have turned.

These days, it is Ireland who are scrapping to hang onto the coat-tails of world rugby's elite and, as they descend the slippery slope, the Pumas have hurtled past them and are soaring for more rarefied climes.

And a newer generation of players have a much sharper focus on trying to detain them rather than on the enmities of past times. Many of the dramatis personae – Contepomi, Ledesma, O'Driscoll, O'Gara – will not be centrally involved this week.

Chris Henry, asked about the history of the fixture, says: "I remember it being a vicious game in the past, but it all seems so long ago, so we haven't really mentioned it. Am I expecting viciousness this weekend? No, we're not thinking about it in that way at all."

So then, no longer embroiled in a vicious circle of winning and losing, sinning and bruising, Argentina and Ireland have reversed the historic division along rugby class lines.

Now it is the Pumas who sit astride the top table of the world game, belatedly inducted into the Tri-Nations as they begin a new life that will see them consistently rub shoulders with the world's top three.

Denial

And Ireland, whose historical devotion to the status quo included their denial of caps for internationals between the two countries until 1990, are now the team clambering to remain among the game's upper classes.

Don't cry for us, Argentina. Their newer breed, like Ireland's younger gunslingers, care little for the comic strip tales of yore.

"I think the rivalry has been there because of being in the same pool in the last three World Cups," says former Leinster star Felipe Contepomi, sadly missing what would have been an emotional Dublin swansong this weekend through injury. "That used to be the only competition that we played and we had to face Ireland – tough opposition always. And that produced the rivalry.

"Having said that, I think our team has changed a lot, there are lots of young faces who didn't play those games and weren't part of those World Cups, so they don't see that rivalry."

Argentina have never won in Ireland, while their eight-year relationship at the past three World Cups has served as a barometer of Ireland's respective fortunes, from ignominy to respectability and back again.

So, too, the World Cups represented a weather vane for Argentina's vacillating fortunes as the world game maintained a stoic reluctance to admit them to the reserved inner sanctum.

For all the illusory progress offered by the upset in Lens in '99, they required failure in '03 to realise how much improvement they required in '07, where they excelled in finishing third.

The decline that subsequently followed will surely be arrested by their now guaranteed annual involvement in the Rugby Championship, as evidenced by their new, more expansive style of play.

Instead, it is the Irish who seem to stare uncertainty in the face when the Argies pitch up on Irish soil.

In 2010, Ireland had suffered six losses from seven before beating the Pumas; two years earlier, mirroring this month's scenario, Ireland were clambering for a second seeding at the World Cup.

The old order changeth and, with it, so many once familiar themes.

Which is not to say that Saturday's contest will parade sweetness and light. The contest retains enough innate import to teeter between light and shadow.

Leave it to prop Marcos Ayerza, a surviving veteran of the fixture, to assure us that there will remain enough of the fire burning to ensure that the thread of the sides' recent battles still fiercely burn within their breasts.

"It's been important since that famous game in 1999," he says. "The World Cups, every time we face Ireland, it's a massive rivalry. We like the Irish, but we don't like them.

Respect

"We respect them a lot, but we are two very similar nations, the way we play, the way we are passionate about the game. We are also trying to become top-tier nations.

"So, similar teams with similar ambitions and history has made the rivalry."

Appropriately enough, the sides will compete for the Admiral William Brown trophy this weekend.

Brown, a native of Foxford, Co Mayo, was a national hero in Argentina, famed for his redoubtable fighting spirit against seemingly impossible circumstances, a rebel against empires of much greater strength and influence who helped the country win its freedom.

The more things change, perhaps, the more they may remain the same.

Ireland v Argentina: The stats

Played - 12
Won - 7
Drawn - 0
Lost - 5
Points For - 233
Points Against - 225

Biggest winning margin – Ireland: 20pts (29-9, Aviva Stadium, 2010). Argentina: 16pts (16-0, Velez Sarsfield, 2007).

Highest score – Ireland: 32pts (32-24, Lansdowne Road, 1999). Argentina: 34pts (34-23, Ferrocaril Oeste, 2000).

Most tries – Ireland: Four (32-24, Lansdowne Road, 1999 and 34-23, Ferrocaril Oeste, 2000). Argentina: Three (32-24, Lansdowne Road, 1999).

Longest winning sequence – Ireland: Three (2002-2004). Argentina: Three (2007).

Most points (individual) – Ireland: Ronan O'Gara 57. Argentina: Gonzalo Quesada 63

Most tries (individual) – Ireland: Three (Matt Mostyn). Argentina: Two (Agustin Pichot).

Most points in a Test – Ireland: 24 (David Humphreys, Stade Felix Bollaert, 1999). Argentina: 23 (Gonzalo Quesada, Stade Felix Bollaert, 1999).

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