Pumas in spotlight in soccer-mad Argentina

Move over, soccer. For once, there’s another sport grabbing the public’s attention in Argentina.

Rugby has gained a brief foothold in the soccer-mad south American country with its national side, the Pumas, reaching the Rugby World Cup semifinals for only the second time.

Sunday’s game against Australia at Twickenham is arguably the biggest in the history of Argentine rugby.

With no soccer games this weekend because of the Argentine presidential elections, die-hard soccer fans will switch their attention to the oval ball to get their sporting fix.

As many as 25,000 Pumas fans are expected to be at the match.

“From what I hear in Argentina, there is a bit of a shock atmosphere about what we are doing,” Argentina scrumhalf Martin Landajo said on Friday at the team’s training base southwest on London. “But in two weeks, they won’t be talking about us.”

The only other time Argentina reached the Rugby World Cup semifinals was in 2007, and the team wasn’t ready for what hit them.

“We didn’t really know what we were doing,” Agustin Pichot, Argentina’s captain back then, recalls of the day his team was hammered 37-13 by South Africa in Paris.

Argentine rugby was largely amateur eight years ago. There was no depth to the national squad and the country’s rugby structure. The Pumas stunned the world by reaching the last four – beating host team France along the way – but there wasn’t a genuine belief they could go all the way.

But Argentine rugby has moved on considerably.

A high-performance program set up in the months after the 2007 World Cup helped establish a clear pathway from the grass roots and amateur level in Argentina to the professional ranks.

New Zealand’s 2011 World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry, former France scrumhalf Fabien Galthie and former All Black Jamie Joseph came on board as consultants, creating a different mindset among the Pumas.

Domination in the forwards and a good kicking game – the hallmarks of Argentine rugby – was no longer enough. There had to be more creativity in the backs.

Most importantly, Argentina was granted permission to play in the southern hemisphere’s annual Rugby Championship against the best teams in the world – New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

The Pumas are starting to hold their own in that championship, beating Australia in Mendoza in 2014 and winning away in South Africa this year.

All this explains Argentina’s performances in Britain over the last month. Twenty-six tries in five games. A thorough dismantling of Europe’s top team, Ireland, in the quarterfinals.

Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe is one of two players in the current Pumas team that started the semifinal against South Africa in 2007. He’s sure there won’t be stage fright this time.

“I think there’s definitely less of a surprise factor this time,” Fernandez Lobbe said.

“We have been playing four years in the Rugby Championship so it means we have already played seven times against the Wallabies before Sunday.

“It definitely gives us more confidence.”

Argentina soccer great Diego Maradona came to watch the Pumas beat Tonga in the pool stage, and sang and danced with Argentina’s players in the changing room afterward. Maradona might be at Twickenham on Sunday, too.

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