Boks and Pumas set for historic clash
October 12, 2007
"Shared isolation has made the only two significant rugby nations with South Atlantic coastlines natural partners and adversaries." Huw Richards reports
Argentina's first ever World Cup semi-final is highly appropriate both in terms of timing and opponent.
It comes in the week when the world is marking the 40th anniversary of the death of the most famous ever Argentinian rugby player.
And whatever Juan Martin Hernandez does over the next couple of weeks he is unlikely to take that title from Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, a scrum-half before he was ever a revolutionary, and a writer whose first published work analysed the vicissitudes of the Argentinian club game rather than the evils of capitalism.
'Che', though, spent his entire active career disapproving of the contact that reaches a new high-point this week - with South Africa.
Shared isolation, both geographical and at times political, has however made the only two significant rugby nations with South Atlantic coastlines natural partners and adversaries.
The first South African team, the junior Springboks, went to Argentina in 1932 and there was another visit in 1959. It is however the reciprocal visit to the Republic in 1965 that left its mark.
It is, for instance, where the Pumas nickname had its origin. The beast on the badge is not, as it happens, a puma but a close relative, the jaguarete.
A South African journalist early in the tour made the natural mistake, the misnomer stuck, and has in time evolved into a proudly-displayed symbol of identity.
They also offered the first hints of the rise to power whose fruits we see four decades on. The Argentinians announced that 'we've come to learn', but proved peculiarly adept students. Liaison officer Izak van Heerden enthused about 'the quickest players I have ever handled...the most intelligent players I know'.
They won 11 games out of 16, including an 11-6 win over the Junior Springboks in Johannesburg, leaving veteran South African journalist Reg Sweet impressed by 'probably the best handling in the game...exemplary pace and an almost uncanny ability to improvise'.
Van Heerden was to leave a deeper mark on the Argentinian game. He did not, as is sometimes said, invent the bajada scrummaging style - that was the brainchild of Francisco Ocampo, whose son Marcos became well-known to British journalists as the engaging and highly efficient media officer with the 1999 World Cup squad.
But van Heerden's addition of South African insights and technique to the already formidable weapon wielded by Argentinian packs helped ensure that, uniquely among developing nations, they would become masters of one of the game's specialised phases.
That relationship deepened further in the 1980s, although not in a manner that either union cares to recall too favourably today.
South Africa, particularly after its 1981 tour of New Zealand tore the host nation apart, was almost entirely isolated by protests against apartheid. South Africa had its supporters, notably Syd Millar, nowadays president of the IRB, who headed a pro-contact pressure group.
Argentina meanwhile was deprived of contact with Britain following the Falklands War.
Three 'South America' teams composed almost entirely of Argentinians - although the Argentinian Rugby Union disavowed the tours and threatened sanctions against any player displaying UAR colours - visited South Africa between 1980 and 1984.
Thus Bloemfontein was privileged to see one of the greatest performances in the career of Hugo Porta, who would be named Ambassador to South Africa nine years later by President Carlos Menem, as the tourists beat the Boks in 1982.
Those days, happily are done and the two nations meet legitimately and under very different circumstances at the Stade de France on Sunday.
This time, there can be no doubt, Che would be deeply proud of his countrymen.