Pumas lay in wait ready to spoil the party
September 4, 2007
"Argentina's Pumas have it in their power to throw the 2007 World Cup off its predicted course within 80 minutes of its start." Huw Richards reports
If they can trip up France on opening night at the Stade, they'll leave the hosts a desperate uphill battle to fulfil their hoped-for destiny of emulating their 1998 football team by winning the World Cup at home.
Where the tournaments of 1991 and 1995 kicked off with Hosts v Holders, this is the third World Cup under the new dispensation, Hosts v Argentina.
There's a logic to this. In 1999 and 2003 they looked like the ideal opening day host-fodder - good enough to give the home team a serious game, but unlikely to beat them. The class of 2007 look altogether tougher and the French might have been happier to play holders England.
Argentina would certainly be happier. They don't think it is a coincidence that they've copped the role three times running and have good reason to be annoyed.
They catch the hosts on a wave of national enthusiasm - and for the second consecutive tournament this is compounded by also having Ireland in their pool, making it by far the toughest of the four.
That sense that outsiders don't get a fair crack played its part in Marcelo Loffreda's outburst about refereeing at Cardiff last month.
Less noticed at the same press conference was skipper Agustin Pichot's quiet outlining of the practical difficulties faced by his team, pointing out that it was the first time anything like a first XV had played together since late last year.
Deprived of the regular competition the remainder of the Top 10 take for granted, their only matches ahead of the tournament were that single clash with Wales followed by a match against a souped-up Belgian Invitation XV. Even Samoa get a better build-up than that.
But if there is anywhere Argentina feel at home away from Buenos Aires, it is France.
As Pichot also pointed out, it isn't just their competitive isolation that prevented their best players getting together during the southern hemisphere's winter.
The other problem was that the bulk of their stars were playing in the later stages of the French championship. Familiarity has bred ease with French surroundings and France as an opponent, with four wins - including that epochal triumph at the Marseilles Velodrome three years ago - in their last five meetings.
They have also added a dimension. There is a good reason why Argentina have been the nearly-men of World Cup tournaments, always capable of threatening and never humiliated, but generally just that bit short against quality opposition.
If you could stop their scrummaging demoralising your forwards - and most decent teams could at least hold their own ball, even if their props emerged like Victor Ubogu at Durban in 1995, for once in a loquacious life almost speechless beyond explaining that he'd just had the toughest afternoon of his life - there was generally little threat wider out.
Their pack remains formidable - every single member of the starting eight at Cardiff had played in a European, French or English final in the previous 15 months - but there's now much more to them. They may have lost to Wales, but a rusty display was punctuated in the second-half by perhaps the most compelling passage of play in any of the warm-up matches.
They launched a series of attacks whose speed, dexterity, astute use of angles and seeking of space rather than contact suggested that, if they've been learning from the French, the pupils have now surpassed their supposed masters.
All of this in the absence of perhaps their best player, full-back Juan Martin Hernandez, who would certainly get my vote as the finest number 15 now operating - a superlative footballer who runs devastatingly and has an intergalactic boot.
Nobody in Europe needs any reminding of the talents of midfield playmaker Felipe Contepomi or scrum-half Pichot. If Ignacio Corleto and Lucas Borges have perhaps been less noticed by British fans, no Welshman present at Cardiff will need convincing of their immense quality.
As clubmates of Hernandez at Stade Francais they offer the Pumas the possibility of fielding a high-class back three intimately aware of each other's talents and idiosyncracies.
They are without doubt one of the best eight teams in the tournament, given a decent draw certainties for a quarter-final and a very good bet for a semi.
Neither should be ruled out, but simply getting out of that pool would be an immense achievement. They are, mind you, overdue a bit of luck at a World Cup.