Sport Rugby

Friday 22 August 2014

Brendan Fanning: A narrative of spice and spite

To the relief of many, Ireland's rivalry with Argentina is not as intense as it once was.

Brendan Fanning

Published 18/11/2012 | 17:00

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Minutes after Munster's Heineken Cup defeat in Castres in December 2004, Ronan O'Gara and Paul Volley found themselves sharing some space as they waited to do their post-match TV interviews.

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O'Gara was still running hot when Volley, who during the game had taken every opportunity to unload verbal abuse on Munster's outhalf, walked into the upstairs room where the cameras were set up.

As soon as Volley appeared, O'Gara made some remark about the No 8's behaviour throughout the night. Volley responded with, well, a volley of his own. Just as things looked like getting out of hand, a Munster official intervened to hustle the Castres player towards the cameras at the far end of the room. "Mario was right," Volley spat as he took his leave. "You're only a f***ing prick!"

The Mario in question was Mario Ledesma, the Argentina hooker who had been unavailable that night, and who had filled in Volley on what he thought of O'Gara. It perfectly illustrated where Ireland and Argentina were in their relationship. Familiarity had bred contempt.

It had begun without any great issues. Between 1952 and 1973, Ireland played Argentina five times in games that carried no caps, as the Pumas were not in the elite eight IRB countries who at the time kept that kind of thing among themselves. Ireland had gone there on tour in 1970 and came home having lost the two 'Tests'.

They had been warned beforehand that the local referees would be crooked and that their opponents would run straight and very hard. And that the hospitality would be top-class.

"The players were brutes and they were physical, physical games," remembers Mick Molloy, who featured in all seven matches on the trip. "But they were extremely friendly afterwards – as always, very pleasant people. They looked after us very well."

It would be another 17 years before the countries met again, in the first capped game between them, in Lansdowne Road in 1990. Nine years further on, they did their Dublin Bus impression with two arriving pretty much together. That's where it got going.

Warren Gatland was Ireland coach at the time. On an August afternoon in Lansdowne Road in 1999, a warm-up for the World Cup the following month, his team had raced into a handsome half-time lead against opponents none of us knew much about. The home team were chased down hard in the second half, without being caught. The line post-match was that Ireland were short of a gallop, which of course they were, rather than what might have happened had the Argies started with the team that finished the game.

Six weeks later, they came across each other for real, in Lens. We then discovered exactly what they were like with their best starting XV in the field. The guts of this group, from Ignacio Corleto, Agustin Pichot and the Contepomi brothers behind, to Ledesma, Martin Scelzo, Lucas Ostiglia and the Lobbes up front, would serve them magnificently through two more World Cups, and a series of running battles with Ireland.

The ramifications of that win in Lens were huge for both countries. For Ireland not only would they have to pre-qualify for the 2003 World Cup – including a trip to Siberia – but either they would have to take the professional game seriously or resign themselves to be on the outside looking in. For IRFU men who were reared on a warped amateur ideology, this was a crossroads that made mice look decisive. For the Argentinians, it was the first time their sporting public accepted that football wasn't their only party piece. A whole new vista had opened up for them.

As luck would have it, Ireland were touring the Americas the following summer. For the hacks, it had enormous appeal: a close-up of the revenge mission to Buenos Aires, followed by two weeks in the US and Canada. It was our first time in Buenos Aires, sampling the raucous atmosphere in the Ferrocaril Oeste, the football stadium where the game was played.

All was going to plan. Ireland were ahead in the second half when Mick Galwey got turned over with men outside him. The Pumas scored at the other end and the game disappeared from Ireland's view. Warren Gatland was fit to be tied afterwards. He wasn't much crack for the rest of the trip. The Argies were becoming a real pain in the ass. Gatland was gone by the time they met next, in a downpour in Lansdowne Road, in 2002, a spiteful game won by the home team. And then the 2003 World Cup rolled around. This is where it really kicked off.

The teams met on a surface like a carpark, the Adelaide Oval, in the pivotal tie in Pool A. Ronan O'Gara's arrival off the bench for David Humphreys settled an extraordinarily tense game which had a costly follow-up for the Pumas. It was as well they were going home for props Roberto Grau and Mauricio Reggiardo picked up nine- and six-week bans respectively for gouges on Keith Wood and Reggie Corrigan.

Wood was almost as put out by the lengthy and adversarial hearing as the incident itself. "I was absolutely grilled," he says. "I had to give a report and I said I was gouged, that it was very frightening but that I wasn't damaged. The evidence was there: You could see I was lying on my back and he (Grau) drew his hand over my eyes. It wasn't as if it didn't happen. I didn't like it (the process) at all."

Despite being a high-profile victim, and having had his heart broken by the Pumas in Lens, Wood enjoyed a good relationship with Pichot and Ledesma. The same wouldn't have been true of O'Gara. Or his coach, Eddie O'Sullivan.

Both were centre stage when the teams clashed in Dublin the following year. "They were filthy," O'Gara wrote, in his autobiography, of the Pumas that day. " Simon Easterby needed stitches after he was gouged in the mouth and they gouged or tried to gouge another five of us in the eyes. I was one of their targets and I was lucky that yer man just missed. I ended up with a gash next to my right eye."

As in the World Cup, O'Gara had saved the day, though this time in far more dramatic fashion, with a drop-goal in the penultimate minute. He did a little jump and click of his heels to celebrate, a move that was a red rag to the bull-like Mario Ledesma.

On the way into the post-match press conference, Eddie O'Sullivan came across Pichot and went to shake his hand, only to be snubbed. When the formal questions came he was asked did he think captain Brian O'Driscoll had been unsporting by, as claimed by the Pumas, trying to get players yellow-carded.

"We had the recording from the ref link and what O'Driscoll said was: 'Ref, this is getting f**king dirty,'" says O'Sullivan. "My reaction was: 'Well I'll give you something unsporting – we have six guys in the changing room who've been gouged'. And that kicked it off."

It got worse at the official function a few hours later. O'Gara was at the bar, talking to Pichot, when Ledesma stormed over and unloaded a torrent in Spanish which the outhalf inferred correctly was not complimentary.

"There was a bad atmosphere around the place," O'Gara wrote. "At one stage one of ours and one of theirs got into a full-scale row with accusations flying in both directions. That's the way it was between us and them. Bad blood."

It wasn't too cosy at the coaches' table either. Eddie O'Sullivan and Marcelo Loffreda sat two seats away from each other, far enough to make it awkward to strike up a conversation – a comfortable distance if you had no interest in conversing.

"A month later, I got a letter from Loffreda saying I was making it all up about the gouging and that I had a problem with Argentina," O'Sullivan says. "I replied, telling him that it had happened all right, and that if he wanted the pictures of the injured players we'd happily deliver them. I never heard from him again."

There was another scene on the night when one of the Argentine players verbally abused a member of staff at the Shelbourne Hotel.

It was a few weeks after that Test that Munster and Castres got together in Stade Pierre Antoine. Evidently, Ledesma had gone back to his club and shared with Volley his love and affection for the Munster and Ireland outhalf.

Four years later, as O'Gara sat in the medical room in Stade Marcel Michelin, having 23 stitches inserted in an ear wound, Ledesma came in and pulled up a chair. By then the hooker was with Clermont, who had just allowed Munster take a vital bonus point from their European tie. Never before had Ledesma got O'Gara in such a compromising position. And he chose then to extend the hand of friendship.

O'Gara and Contepomi were some way off reaching the same point however. O'Gara finds it easy enough not to get on with his opposite number, Contepomi easier perhaps than any of the others he has faced.

"Yeah, Rog and Felipe had their issues in a few games and it didn't help the bitterness between the teams," recalls Denis Leamy. "It stemmed off the back of something stupid: Felipe was taking a goal kick in Musgrave Park in early 2005/'06 and he felt that someone (of the players) had shouted at him or something like that. To the best of my knowledge no one had, but Felipe persisted with it. I think it grew out of that."

That was October. In the RDS on December 31, Leinster were about deliver to their growing band of fans a New Year's gift that wrapped up Munster in a neat little box and then kicked them around. Or rather, ran them around. The Leinster backs, with Contepomi calling the shots, shredded their opponents who looked dimwitted and heavy-legged by comparison.

It ended up 35-23, they outscored Munster 4-2 on tries and Contepomi was outstanding. He delivered 15 points off the tee. It was his two tries that left O'Gara looking ordinary however. For the crowning touchdown, Contepomi had rushed to the home fans, cupping his ear to better hear their roars of approval.

The soul-searching started in the away dressing room that day, and continued until they met four months later in the Heineken Cup semi-final in Lansdowne Road.

"Contepomi had a great season in fairness to him and when it came to that European semi-final he was the man we had to upset," says Leamy, who coursed him about the place all day. "We managed to upset him enough that he was his own worst enemy. He played himself out of the game and I don't think he ever forgave us for that. He's an excellent player and I was just trying to get in his face as often as possible. I don't think I did anything overboard on the day."

In a Hollywoodesque climax to Munster's demolition of their rivals, O'Gara fended – yes, fended – Malcolm O'Kelly to scamper over and score in front of the massed bank of red-shirted fans on the south terrace of the old Lansdowne Road. Then he leapt the advertising hoarding to acknowledge them, cupping his ear to better hear the acclaim.

O'Gara was 30 going to the World Cup the next year, right at the summit of his career and ready to achieve with perhaps the best team Ireland had ever produced. He had a miserable tournament. It wrapped up in Parc des Princes, with defeat by Argentina. Ireland had never won there in 12 attempts against France, and nobody thought number 13, against their buddies from the Pampas, was going to write a happy ending.

Contepomi may not have been the star of the show that afternoon – that was reserved for the awesome football skills of Juan Martin Hernandez, who dropped three goals – but man did he enjoy it.

He complained after the game of sledging by the Irish players. When the press conference was all done and dusted and the TV crews were packing away their gear, Contepomi was showing his scars of battle and lamenting aloud why the Irish players went after him. In the circumstances, where the Pumas had thoroughly outplayed their opponents, it was hard to understand why he would be complaining about anything. It wasn't as if he had been gouged.

The characters in this saga have mostly changed now – retired or injured or out of favour. Ireland have won the last two meetings between the teams, and there wasn't much to report either day. Certainly nothing like the drama that defined the relationship when they met too often, and with too much at stake.

Statistically, Ireland are ahead in the dozen games in the modern era, but the Pumas won the World Cup clashes 2-1. Along the way we have got spite and spice and a bit of entertainment as well. Might be an idea that they give the veterans' circuit a miss.

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