“WEIGHTY ISSUES FOR ARGENTINE RUGBY”
England should have little to fear when a new-look lightweight Argentina come calling in London this Novemeber
Stephen Jones Published: 30 October 2013
ONLY AN Argentinian could have written a book called The Art of Scrummaging. People from many rugby nations could have written tomes on the science of scrummaging but the book by the great professor of the primary phase, Enrique (Topo) Rodriguez, not only bears that title but in its content treats the scrummaging phase of rugby with awe and reverence, and even love.
Topo, the great Argentina-born loosehead who went on to become one of the greatest Australian forwards in history, manages to produce a vivid work of more than 200 pages without ever becoming too technical, enthusing even non-combatant readers.
Argentina’s traditions in the scrummage go back to the dawn of rugby time. The scrum has always been the staple of their game, a true test of power and resolve and mental fibre. Scrummaging in the country has always been sexy, the front-row positions attracting more young Argentinians to rugby than to what are seen in other nations as more glamorous parts of the field.
Even in the modern era, the names produced by the Argentina prop factory is endless – Serafin Dengra, Roberto Grau, Mauricio Reggiardo, Rodrigo Roncero, Omar Hasan, Martin Scelzo.
It was scrummaging power that finally saw Argentina enter the Rugby Championship. Their forward power was still to the fore when they performed so brilliantly at the 2007 World Cup in France – though it must be said that their game had expanded significantly – and it was front-on scrummaging that gave Argentina a convincing win over England at Twickenham in 2006.
Yet there is a sea change. Granted, the upfront great Leicester Tiger Marcos Ayerza is still in harness, but the generation of great props has departed and so too the magnificent hookers, Federico Mendez and Mario Ledesma.
Argentina can still be competitive at scrum time but there is now a shortage of true world-class props. Even though there are still a large number plying their trade around the world, part of that is because, with the greatest respect, the reputation of Argentine scrummagers has remained while the ability has declined.
Yet again, a nation has fallen victim to the mistaken need to parrot the playing style of other nations. Once again, the bogus march towards what some people see as entertainment has created a casualty.
The situation is similar in English rugby but things are even worse in Argentina. Instead of sticking close to their roots and to the part of the game that has always empowered them, the Pumas have tried to become trendy, tried to develop attacking rugby. They have paid a heavy price because they have not won any game to date in the Rugby Championship, they have been unhappy in their playing styles and have been caught between several styles.
Another factor is the pressure from New Zealand and, formerly, Australia. There was a time when these two nations were terrible at the scrummage and simply wanted it to be a means of restarting play. So New Zealand especially spent years making fun of Argentine, English and even French teams, who were true to their ideals of scrummaging power. There was a deadly serious point behind their jibes – they were scared.
It became almost a point of embarrassment that you still tried to progress on this narrow front, even though as all history shows, to be destructive in the scrummage means that the rest of the game falls into place.
New Zealand have been clever enough to keep up this barrage of propaganda while also developing their own fine scrummagers, so they have the best of both worlds.
Granted, Argentina did have to develop their game. They were far too one-dimensional. They are now producing decent backs, even superb backs. But that was all better done on the back of a power scrummage.
They face England, Wales and Italy in the next few weeks, and you fear for them. You fear not only because they are tired after the Rugby Championship – never forget that Argentina have never had to play remotely the same number of internationals in so confined a time – but you also fear that they do not any longer know how to play, or where their strengths are.
They could do nothing better than recruit Topo Rodriguez, a magnificently unreconstructed but wise old giant, to remind them of their roots, before they start reverting to basketball rugby.
Three years ago, as one of the coaches on a youth club tour, we visited Buenos Aires and Rosario. We trained for weeks to counter what we expected to be massive Argentinian scrummagers but hardly bothered to legislate for the fact that Argentina might attack us behind the scrum.
The outcome was salutary. All the teams we played against had props of decent size but our smaller lads were able to deal with them with relative ease, occasionally were able to push them back.
But what happened when they won the ball? The young Argentina players – and one or two of them are now moving through towards the national team – ran everything from almost everywhere. They ran the ball from their own dead-ball line.
It was heroic, but it tore up history. Argentina had to change, but what they did not have to do was to throw away the glorious riches of the past. As they approach Twickenham now, they are un-recognisable, and denuded.