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All Black great explains why Los Pumas were destined to become rugby powerhouse

By Adam Julian
Julian Montoya of Argentina lifts the trophy with teammates after winning during a Rugby Championship match between Argentina Pumas and Australian Wallabies at San Juan del Bicentenario Stadium on August 13, 2022 in San Juan, Argentina. (Photo by Rodrigo Valle/Getty Images)

When the All Blacks officially toured Argentina for the first time for Test matches in 1985 it was something of a venture into the unknown.

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Argentina was largely isolated from World Rugby, recovering from a disastrous military junta (1974-1983) that saw an economic crisis, and internal terrorism take hold.  Internationally Argentina was maligned following the loss of the Falklands War.

Murray Mexted was an experienced All Blacks No.8 on his last tour in 1985. He admits the experience was one of “great learning” and he could see the potential for Argentina to become a greater force in the game.

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“It was a raw and exciting environment, one that could be volatile, though we had lots of security and were around rugby people,” Mexted told Rugby Pass.

“In the cities like Buenos Aires, they had these huge, multi-sports clubs that were expensive and had wonderful facilities, a legacy of the British influence in the 19th century.

“In the regions, there were small pockets of rugby, rough, tough, and emotional. They were people where clearly nothing was given easily, and they played with a different character, not entirely dissimilar to the urban, rural divide in New Zealand.

“Argentina always had the right character to play the game. All they needed was ongoing competition and better coaching to became more competitive.”

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In his first midweek appearance of the tour, Mexted captained the All Blacks, scoring a try, in a 28-9 win over Rosario Selection.

On October 26, 1985, the All Blacks met Argentina for the first time in an official Test match at Ferrocarrill Stadium, Buenos Aires. It was close at halftime with the visitors only leading 15-14.  Hampered by ill-discipline the Pumas would eventually fall 33-20. Two tries to winger John Kirwan and four penalty goals for fullback Kieran Crowley helped the All Blacks prevail.

Argentina would be a different beast at the same venue the following week. Spurred on by a hostile crowd, a more focused forward effort, and one of the greatest individual displays by an opponent against the All Blacks, Argentina achieved a draw – but they could have won but for an error by No.8 Ernesto Ure. He told Infobae, via the USA, in 2011.

“What happened in that scrum is simple: the ball fell forward a few meters from the in-goal with seconds remaining in the game that was 21-21. We shot and got it out. The scrum takes two steps forward and stops.

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“In that fraction of a second, as I have had to do so many other times, I had to decide if I stayed lined up with the ball at my feet or got up to try to run over into in-goal. Knowing that the next whistle was going to be the end of the game, I decided to get up.

“The moment I lowered my arms to catch the ball, the scrum takes another step forward, I lose my footing and drop the ball. End of the game but not the end of the story.”

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First-five Hugo Porta scored all 21 Pumas points (four penalties and three drop goals) in a mesmerising display. Porta regrettably conceded in the aftermath.

“After that move, enormous frustration enveloped us. What’s more, as captain I blamed Flaco (Ure). I told him everything. After all, we were never so close to beating the All Blacks.”

Mexted scored one of the All Blacks’ four tries, ironically from a routine scrum detach, to help the All Blacks save face.

“Hugo Porta was a machine. He could off both feet. He was a strong runner with a solid tackle and he played with an extraordinary amount of control and composure,” Mexted said.

“I remember I played with him in the World XV and after training, we had to walk across the field to the hotel car park to reach our room. The whole time we were walking and talking he was balancing the ball on both feet and not once did it hit the ground even going up the stairs.

“We’d never been exposed to a skill set like his before. I think that really influenced Grant Fox who became even more dedicated afterwards. Wayne Smith was on that tour too, and I’ve got no doubt Porta might have been a small influence.”

Mexted marked Ure who featured in landmark wins by the Pumas against Australia in 1983 and a first success against France in 1985. In 1982 Ure even played for South America in a 21-12 victory over the Springboks where Porta scored every point in every way possible.

“Ure was big and strong, well over six foot. Jorge Allen, Eliseo Branca, and Gustavo Milano properly left a greater impression on me though. They were all very physical, good at winning the ball in contact and in the air. It was a helluva Test match, a golden era for them,” Mexted said.

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Fast forward 38 years and the All Blacks open the Rugby Championship on Sunday in Mendoza, a bustling city in Argentina to the east of Mount Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere. Outside the wealthier and established Buenos Aires, Mendoza is a rugby heartland.

Argentina has beaten the All Blacks twice since 2020 with highly effective loose forward play resembling the legacy of the 85 Pumas.

When analysing the All Blacks contentious loose forward trio Mexted believes they lack height requiring four legitimate lineout options as well individuals who can win areal contests from kick-offs and tactical kicking exchanges.

He believes Scott Barrett could be an option at six but would need to learn greater awareness when defending the blindside of the scrum.

The Blues were exposed badly by the Crusaders in the Super Rugby semis by having “three carriers” rather than genuine “hunters and gathers” in the loose.

“I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the roles of loose forwards. The main job of the seven and the eight is to attain and regain possession. It’s an all-action position where you’ve got to be targeting that ball and be bloody good at the nitty gritty breakdown area,” Mexted said.

“The blindside is a little different.  There is more latitude, and you can have a big guy like a Samipeni Finau or Shannon Frizell who are that Jerome Kaino type player.”

Samipeni Finau, Sam Cane, and Ardie Savea would be his starting loose forward trio this weekend. It isn’t perfect in an areal context but provides the All Blacks with “hunters and gathers” and something “different” to topple tough Argentina.

Note: The All Blacks toured Argentina for the first time in 1976 with the Pumas returning to New Zealand in 1979.

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carlos 376 days ago

The military junta took over in March 1976, please check your sources. In addition, common courtesy would suggest adding the Argentine name for the islands, Malvinas. There a YouTube video of the locker room after that famous draw. You could see Guastella’s overwhelming emotions (the coach), as well as those of the entire team.

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William 2 hours ago
All Blacks vs England takeaways: Richie Who? Time for Cortez

Correct analysis of Perofeta’s bungling of the try opportunity Ben. Never ‘fixed’ Steward as he came across in defence and passed too early. Steward didn’t have to break his stride and simply moved on to pressure Telea. Never scanned the easier option of passing to the two supporting players on the inside. Beauden Barrett showed how it is done when he put Telea in for his try. Another point from the game is that the rush defence is hard to maintain as the number of phases increases. From scrums the defensive line only contains backs who all have roughly the same pace. Once forwards are involved, the defence has players with variable speeds often leading to a jagged line. It also tends to lose pace overall giving the attack more time and space. Beauden Barrett’s break to set up Telea’s try came because Baxter went in to tackle McKenzie and Steward went out to cover Telea. Barrett has a massive hole to run through, then commits Steward by passing as late as possible and Telea scores untouched. Another comment I would make is that Ben Earl is a good player and generally an excellent defender but he made three significant misses in the series, two of which led to All Black tries. Got stepped by Perofeta in Dunedin for Savea’s try, missed McKenzie in Auckland leading to what should have been a certain try being set up by Perofeta and was one of the tacklers who couldn’t stop Savea in the leadup to Telea’s first try. Perhaps he should contact Owen Farrell to pick up a few tips from ‘tackle school’.

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