Remembering the Che Guevara doctrine ... the Pumas in action. Photo: Getty Images
DURING a debate in Melbourne recently between rugby and AFL tragics over the merits of their codes, Adam Freier, the former Wallabies hooker, argued convincingly that the international range of rugby union created a fascinating community who had played the game. He instanced James Bond (fictionally) and Che Guevara (literally) as rugby players. He could have mentioned Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as presidents who played rugby.
Edmund Barton, Ben Chifley (a dashing loose forward like Richard Burton), Sir Keith Holyoake, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (who lost the sight in an eye through a rugby injury) were prime ministers who learnt to take the hits of life on the rugby field. Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves, JJR Tolkien, Stephen Fry, Jacques Tati and Bryce Courtenay (a fervent Wallabies supporter) were players in their day.
With the Pumas playing their first Rugby Championship Test in Australia tonight at the Gold Coast, the case of Guevara reveals the Argentinian passion for the game. He played rugby, as an (inappropriate) centre not as a left winger, when he was studying medicine in Buenos Aires in the 1950s. He was so entranced with the game, he started his own rugby magazine, Tackle. Given the sterling defensive play of the Pumas against the All Blacks last Saturday night, Guevara's tackle imperative is now an essential part of the Argentinian style.
The Pumas have added a new dimension to the tournament, the ''Che Factor''. The Pumas and their passionate supporters are revelling on the big rugby stage the tournament provides. At Wellington, a small group of Pumas supporters, resplendent in their blue-and-white colours, blowing whistles and waving flags, provided enough noise with their singing, chanting and roaring to make their presence felt in a crowd of 35,000.
The enthusiasm of the supporters encouraged the Pumas to play with bravery, skill and a sort of revolutionary fervour that was in the Guevara traditions. The Pumas missed only 17 tackles out of 107 attempted. Time after time the All Blacks surged towards the Pumas' try line only to be knocked over and back. Luke Romano, the big All Blacks second-rower, led a charge from a five-metre tap penalty. He was smashed back another 5m as if he'd run into an on-rushing train.
At times, too, the Pumas showed glimpses of some slick running and passing in the backs. But there was not enough of this. The All Blacks made 133 carries of the ball for 470m gained: to the 33 carries and 177m by the Pumas. Sir Graham Henry, now a consultant-coach of the Pumas, has identified scoring tries as the main work-on for the Pumas. This is right. The Pumas, like the Springboks, are still playing their 2007 World Cup kicking game. Despite the fact that they had only 31 per cent of possession, the Pumas kicked 31 times to the All Blacks 27 times.
So the Wallabies can expect hard tackling and a lot of kicking tonight. The catching skills of the back three will be tested as Juan Martin Fernandez sends up his attack of bombs. If the Pumas get close to the try line, the Wallabies can expect a torrid sequence of one-up hard-shouldered runs from the big forwards. Even the tight All Blacks' defence could not hold on one occasion against this brutal onslaught.
The Pumas lineout (63 per cent success rate against the All Blacks) and scrum (88 per cent success) can be slightly wobbly. The improved Wallabies scrum under Andrew Blades's coaching and lineout (provided there are no more brain snaps from Nathan Sharpe) could have some dominance in the set-pieces.
The only complaint about the Pumas so far in the Rugby Championship is their cynicism in slowing down play. The Pumas, for their part, need to remember the Che Guevara doctrine that contests are won by attacking the opposition and not with go-slows.