Hernandez can prove Ireland's chief tormentor
Published 24/11/2012 | 05:00
AS ticket sales for Lansdowne Road edged towards capacity this week, the inclusion of Juan Martin Hernandez in the Argentina side should have given them a little kick.
Hernandez needs no introduction in these parts after he tormented Ireland when they met at the World Cup in 2007. The record books show his three drop-goals but his equally brilliant Garryowen that set up their game-defining try at the end of the first half is just a glimpse of what he can do.
"It was a good game," he recalled from their Dublin base.
"We controlled it but it wasn't easy. Our forwards were on the front foot. We were lucky to get some early scores and we controlled the game. It was one of my best games."
Even the Kiwis – who, with some justification, can be slow to look beyond their own shores when doling out praise – took time to admire his talents in the Rugby Championship.
It's not all pretty stuff either. Among his many YouTube moments is a try-saving hit on a bullocking Alesana Tuilagi in the Heineken Cup.
Now 30 – serious knee and back injuries robbed him of some of his best years – he's relishing being back in the Pumas side.
"I have been out of competitions for almost three years. Now I'm enjoying every session and every game, so I'm happy to be here again," he said. "There was a lot of rehab and hospitals. But it happens. I was sad, of course, watching the team on TV, especially watching the team at the World Cup but I'm back now."
He has a fine pedigree too. His sister Maria won a silver medal with the Argentina hockey team at the 2000 Olympics while his uncle Patricio was a member of Maradona's Argentina squad that went to Spain for the 1982 World Cup. The story goes he could have pursued a career in soccer, but he insists his game was always rugby.
"I just played a little soccer when I was younger. My uncle was a coach after he finished playing and I did some training with him. But that was it," he said.
Hernandez can recall that infamous day in Lens in 1999 when an irreverent bunch, which included Pumas coach Santiago Phelan, beat Ireland 28-24. From there, he was smitten and in former Leinster favourite Felipe Contepomi he saw a kindred spirit.
"I learned a lot from him. He's a fly-half but he likes contact, I like his style. And maybe I have a similar style to him, maybe I'm not that strong but I like his style," he said.
Hernandez was out-half when he led the Pumas to third place in the '07 World Cup but Phelan has named him at full-back for today's game. He says he doesn't want there to be much kicking, but he'll be aware of the inexperience of Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo in Ireland's back three.
Ireland can also expect less bludgeoning than they've been used to with the Pumas in the past. Former New Zealand coach Graham Henry was recruited for the Rugby Championship and they are much more expansive, as they showed against Wales – Juan Jose Imhoff has been one of the main beneficiaries with 11 tries in 13 Tests.
"It's a different style. As soon as we got involved in the Rugby Championship, the coaches and the union knew an evolution had to happen. Graham Henry helped us a lot to change the traditional style," said Hernandez.
"Now we play better, we are making some mistakes because we are trying a high-level type of rugby, but I think it is the correct way to play."