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FEATURE Rugby World Cup stories: 'Argentina is not the a** of the world!'

Rugby World Cup stories: 'Argentina is not the a** of the world!'
11 months ago

Euphoric and panting defiantly, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe stepped before the TV cameras. The snarling flanker would one day become a titan of Argentine rugby, a captain and a warrior and an inspiration, and now part of Michael Cheika’s coaching ticket. Back then, in September 2007, Fernandez Lobbe was a pup.

He stood there, basking in the shock and the delirium. The merry chaos his Pumas had created in the very first match of the World Cup. France vanquished in their own teeming back yard.

Fernandez Lobbe’s lungs burned and his head swam. He stood wide-eyed, coated in a film of sweat. Pride swelled inside him like a balloon about to pop. And then, live on air, it did.

‘Argentina no es el culo del mundo!’ he proclaimed. ‘Argentina is not the ass of the world!’

He laughs about it now, 16 years later. An exuberant young man waving his country’s flag.

“It’s like, this is a way to show we are not down there in the south west of the world, and people need to take notice. That was the idea. Emotions are high, you just beat France, and I went out and said, ‘this shows we are not down there, and we don’t mean nothing’. But it was funny. Emotions speaking.

“Apart from the guys on our team, the staff, and maybe a few family members – I’m not going to tell you all our families were sure we would win it – everyone expected France to win.”

Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe
Argentina’s flanker Juan Fernandez Lobbe celebrates after a Rugby World Cup 2007 pool victory. (Photo by PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP via Getty Images)

These Pumas were ferocious, savaging any pre-tournament notions about their place in the game, claiming scalp after big-name scalp, sparking a rugby revolution at home and a case for Tier One inclusion that became simply too compelling to resist.

Their squad was laden with excellence. The swashbuckling Juan Martin Hernandez and Felipe Contepomi occupied its playmaking berths. It had Mario Ledesma, Rodrigo Roncero and Gonzalo Longo as its wizened heavies. It had rapiers out wide in Lucas Borges and Ignacio Corleto, and feisty tyros everywhere, notably Fernandez Lobbe. And it had Agustin Pichot, one of the most influential figures in the modern game and a totemic figure for his players, as leader.

Horacio Agulla, meanwhile, was not an illustrious pick. The wing was the only member of the bronze medallists still playing amateur rugby.

As a boy of five, Agulla longed to ride a bicycle. His leg warped by Perthes disease, a rare condition affecting blood flow to the growing femur, he spent two years in a wheelchair, two more on crutches. The illness now afflicts his children. Agulla could not fathom becoming a rugby player, let alone the heights he would scale across Europe, or the devastation his Argentina team would wreak in a few blistering weekends.

That autumn, a month shy of his 21st birthday, Agulla flew to France. Marcelo Loffreda plucked him from the Hindu club in Buenos Aires and thrust him to the spearhead of this historic campaign. Agulla was steeled by his childhood strife.

We knew we were fighting against teams with three or four times the budget we had, and we didn’t feel like our union were with us.

“I never imagined getting to where I got,” he says. “That disease made me mentally strong. I’m blessed to have had that disease, I’m blessed that I could fight and dream. I wasn’t the biggest, the strongest, or the fastest, but I knew everything I went through was bigger than the guy I had in front of me.

“In 2007, we had a group of players who had played in 2003 and didn’t have a good World Cup, they were very, very frustrated after that. It wasn’t good enough for them. I was lucky enough to get in on that.”

That the lead-up was racked with angst and bureaucracy only bolsters the Pumas’ achievements. The Argentine union were backwards thinkers. To claim bronze, the squad had to jolt their bosses out of Stone Age. Resources were scant. Pennies pinched. The players saw how their rivals prepared and bristled that their own people were holding them back. Pichot and his lieutenants raged against the machine.

Contepomi, playing centre with his twin brother Manuel, was a senior man at the heart of the tumult.

“The people running the union were from a very amateur background,” he says. “World rugby was going one way, and they wanted to go completely 180 degrees the other way.

“We got frustrated so we joined together, and maybe having that cause brought us even more tight.”

In the end, team sponsors cooled the feud. Adidas put Argentina up in their famous Andrews Institute in Pensacola, Florida, a training centre for high-end athletes.

“We weren’t having a lot of help from the union, there was a lot of fighting,” Agulla says. “Pensacola was a big, big step for us because it wasn’t just training, it was everything around it. We were together all the time. We had fun, we trained hard – the hardest sessions we’d had.

“No-one was used to training like that, even the guys playing in Europe. Imagine how it was for me, an amateur player used to training on Tuesday and Thursday nights and playing on Saturdays.

“We knew we were fighting against teams with three or four times the budget we had, and we didn’t feel like our union were with us.”

On those stifling Floridian afternoons, a single focus was honed. A date bounced into Argentine skulls again and again. The Pumas would raise the tournament curtain against a host nation nobody expected them to beat, before the swaying and shuddering Stade de France, and the eyes of the rugby world.

“In Pensacola, they always talked about 7th September, 7th September, 7th September,” Agulla says. “On 7th September, we are going to smash France. On 7th September, we are going to show them we are ready. From the first day we arrived in Florida, they spoke about 7th September. We knew we were going to do it. There was no other option.”

Agulla played a memorable role in a dazzling conquest. Alone against four French marauders inside his own half, he seized upon Remy Martin’s whistling pass, scrambled forwards and flipped to Manuel Contepomi, who sent Ignacio Corleto screaming home for the only try of the match.

“It was four against one – okay, what the f**k do I do now? I just went for it. I thought I was going to score because only Fabien Pelous was beside me, but his arms are very long. Manuel was with me so I popped it to him, and then Nani Corleto came from 100km away.”

I ran right over to the other side of the pitch, looked up and just saw my dad. There. In the middle of 80,000 people. Just him surrounded by French people.

Argentina’s grit, belligerence and streetsmarts saw them home. The biggest imaginable statement made on the opening night. There was poignancy, too, for Agulla, selected because two team-mates had been struck down in the days prior.

“I wasn’t supposed to play the first game. There were so many good wingers. I was the youngest, not very experienced. They announced the team on Thursday so there wasn’t much time for anyone to fly out. I told my father and he hung up and booked a flight without telling me

“In the tunnel, I felt so much pressure, I was so nervous. I just ran at 100% pace out on to the pitch, shouting ‘aarrgghh!’ like a crazy guy, because I wanted to take the energy away. I ran right over to the other side of the pitch, looked up and just saw my dad. There. In the middle of 80,000 people. Just him surrounded by French people. Woah. I saw him, we pointed at each other, and it was a different game for me. Unbelievable.”

Emotion, spirit and family underpin so much of this tale. The players barbecued together outside their hotels. They went for drinks at least once a week. They sang long and loud about Argentina and her glory, often startling passers-by as they piled off the coach from training. They pilfered instruments from travelling fans and painted a vibrant, beautiful backdrop.

In the aftermath of the first pool game, Pichot gathered his men together on the conquered Parisian turf. His dark locks quivered as he jabbed his finger, the general addressing his corps. Any one of those Pumas would have run through a minefield for Pichot. Some knew this would be his international swansong. He was loved universally and revered absolutely.

Agustin Pichot rallies Argentina during the 2007 Rugby World Cup
Agustin Pichot of Argentina encourages his team ahead of a Rugby World Cup 2007 match. (Photo Warren Little/Getty Images)

“You have guys who lead and guys who followed,” says Fernandez Lobbe. “The guys who followed, we got very excited, we were jumping, screaming, we were very joyful. But here comes Gus with a very clear purpose about what we were trying to achieve, saying, ‘guys, this is just one, don’t forget we have seven steps to go’. That was it. Let’s not shift our focus. Enjoy it, but next game, here we go.”

Agulla could talk for hours about his old captain.

“Man, he is one in a million. He was in every tiny detail, from the size of your shirt to the last item on the board. He was with the coaches making the game plan. He had the perfect things to say. He knew and he believed 100% in everything we were doing, everything.

“Maybe he wasn’t in his prime as a rugby player but mentally? Wow. He managed referees, he managed opposition, he was very smart in every situation.

“At the beginning, all the guys from small provinces who had to come to Buenos Aires for training, he helped them pick apartments because the union weren’t doing anything. He was a rugby player but he had to think about everything.”

If Pichot was the team’s heartbeat, Juan Martin Hernandez was its nerve centre. He bestrode the competition with his strutting magnificence. Perhaps the iconic player of the 2007 World Cup. He saw space where none existed. He moved with effortless grace and poise. He had the dexterity of a surgeon. He drove the Pumas around the paddock with a brilliant array of punts, chips and bombs. The Argentines called him El Mago – the magician.

I was like a groupie talking to Juan when I started. He was like, ‘the f**k are you doing man? We’re friends. He was amazing.

Hernandez’s story could have turned out so differently. He had played scarcely any Test rugby in the 10 jersey at that time. Contepomi was the established fly-half, a world-class pivot in a supreme Leinster side. Loffreda backed his sorcerer, and Contepomi had a thunderous tournament in midfield.

“Felipe could have fit in any team in the world, New Zealand, South Africa, he could have started at 10,” says Hernandez. “He just said, ‘Who is the number 10? Juan? No problem.’ With Agustin and Felipe, I felt like I was playing 10 from a sofa. ‘Juan, there is space here’, ‘Juan, up and under’. Having Felipe alongside was awesome.”

Contepomi knew his junior’s potential. He knew Loffreda’s selection call would pay handsome dividends.

“Juan is one of the most talented players I have ever played with. If you put him at hooker, he would have done a good job,” he says.

“He’s one of those guys who is good at everything,” Fernandez Lobbe waxes. “Give him a rugby ball, he’s amazing. Give him a football, he’s amazing. Golf, tennis, whatever. I even think he’d be amazing in American football.”

Agulla treated his friend like a demigod.

“He is one of my best mates. We were together all the time. I just couldn’t stop admiring him. I was like a groupie talking to him when I started. He was like, ‘the f**k are you doing man? We’re friends.’ He was amazing, bro. He had something different. He was a magician.”

Juan Martin Hernandez and Felipe Contepomi
Argentina teammates Felipe Contepomi (L) and Juan Martin Hernandez (R) hug after a Rugby World Cup 2007 match. (Photo Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Argentina slew Georgia and Namibia with minimal fuss, teeing up a seismic pool finale against Ireland. The Irish were teetering. Georgia had run them painfully close. France had whacked them. For Ireland, it was win-or-bust.

This was Hernandez’s defining performance, a stunning individual display laced with flourishes of skill from hand and boot, punctuated by three drop-goals. That day, at Parc des Princes, the Argentine fans bestowed upon him their nation’s ultimate honour.

“Normally I didn’t pay much attention to the crowds. One of the songs they sung that day was a Diego Maradona song. They were referring to me. That’s amazing.”

It was not merely a quarter-final at stake. Argentina had dumped Ireland out of the 1999 World Cup. The Irish avenged that defeat four years later and sent Los Pumas home at the pool stage. Contepomi played in both matches. Now, he stood nose to nose with a whole rake of the Munster team who were grave foes of his Leinster province. The narrative was juicy.

“How the Irish guys were during the 2003 game and after with the Argentineans, it wasn’t very friendly,” says Agulla.

“The relationship Felipe had with those Munster guys played a big part. It was his game, he had to perform, he was unbelievable. He bullied every single Munster player in that game. He didn’t say anything to Brian O’Driscoll or Gordon D’Arcy [who played for Leinster] but Ronan O’Gara, Paul O’Connell, Donnacha O’Callaghan, bro, they had a tough night, I promise you.

“There was a lot of s**t-talking. It was fun for us, to be honest. I felt it was something he needed. He needed more respect. You could see he was having fun. You could see in his face afterwards, ‘this is enough, I am happy with this’.”

Contepomi is a touch more understated about how it all went down.

“It’s easier to come back to Ireland a winner than a loser. I had my friends and my rivals in Ireland, but it wasn’t personal. I have so much respect for the Munster guys as well. It’s like when two cousins or brothers play each other, you want to beat them.”

Boca-River is one of the biggest games in the world, along with Real Madrid-Barcelona. They said, ‘okay, we need to move it because it will clash with the Pumas.’

Argentina soared into the knockouts. By then, a nation in thrall to football had begun feasting on the exploits of its rugby team. For Messi and Maradona, read Pichot and Hernandez. There was one problem. El Superclasico, the fabled and fearsome Argentine derby between Boca Juniors and River Plate, was slated for the same date and the same time as the Pumas’ battle with Scotland. This fixture is etched so deep into Argentine culture that moving it was unthinkable. Yet move it, the authorities did.

“You say it now and I get goosebumps,” says Fernandez Lobbe. “It’s such a football-mad country. Boca-River is one of the biggest games in the world, along with Real Madrid-Barcelona, Manchester United-Manchester City. They said, ‘okay, we need to move it because it will clash with the Pumas and we want the people of Argentina to watch it’. It was crazy.”

The Scots were next on the hit list, pipped in a testy battle, propelling Argentina deeper than ever before into a World Cup. Their confidence rocketed.

It took South Africa, and Bryan Habana, to torpedo the fairytale. In the semi-final, the Springboks were too powerful, too ruthless. Habana scored two predatory tries to seal their fate. A week later, they were world champions.

“It just showed the difference was there, that we needed to be rubbing shoulders with those guys more often,” Fernandez Lobbe reflects. “We were used to playing the European nations in November or June, but not used to playing South Africa, Australia or New Zealand.

“It showed what Gus was fighting for in such a strong way. In 2012, we managed to get into the Rugby Championship. But in 2007, they were better than us. They were more clinical than us. Habana was flying around. Our team never broke, we kept going and going and going.”

Horacio Agulla
Argentina’s winger Horacio Agulla looks dejected after the rugby union World Cup semi final match South-Africa vs. Argentina (Photo WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images)

It was a soul-sapping defeat. Argentina believed – truly believed – they could win the lot. And why wouldn’t they, with the talent they had and the bonds they’d forged? As Stade de France emptied and fell ghostly quiet, El Mago slumped on the bench. Tears trickled down his cheeks.

“The dream of being world champions was lost,” says Hernandez. “Agustin saw me there, came and sat beside me, and we both started crying. It was a goodbye for him. I heard it straight from him: ‘Juan, this is my last one, you have to go on without me’. Those words were even more devastating than losing to South Africa. He was my friend, my brother, my father sometimes, because when I moved to Stade Francais at 20 years old, he was already there. He treated me as one of his family. That really shook me.”

Typically, Pichot knew the right words. And he knew the right actions to back them up. Together with Loffreda, the wise owl coach, he took an extraordinary step to flush away the pain.

“We were destroyed after the game,” says Agulla. “We couldn’t think about playing France again in the third-place match. We already beat them; they are going to come to smash us at home. They were angry.

“On Sunday, all the leaders came together and decided we weren’t going to train until Friday. We had just one session that week. We didn’t need to train. We knew everything already. We needed to get our heads right again.

“We had money from the players, everyone who made a publicity appearance or sponsorship event paid into it, and if we needed anything we took money from there. We couldn’t count on the union to pay. We used part of that money to fly all our families out from Argentina for the last game, and went to Disneyland Paris together.

“We were 60 Argentineans in Disneyland, not thinking about rugby, having food together, going around the parks. We spent quality time with our families for three days. We got to the training session full of energy again.”

I was watching like, ‘oh f**k, there’s going to be a fight here, where do I stand if there’s a fight?’ I looked around and just saw Christophe Dominici on the edge with a cigar.

It’s quite a thought, Pichot and his band of merry, muscular bruisers clattering through Hyperspace Mountain to prepare for one of the biggest games of their lives. But the downtime worked. Emphatically.

France were not edged, as they were in the opener, but eviscerated. They pummelled the away 22 at the start and end of the first half, and came up with nothing. The Pumas held them like bulwarks. Then they unloaded a flurry of juddering punches. They won 34-10. France did not score a try until the 69th minute.

“The first and last minutes of the first half stick in my mind,” Hernandez recalls. “France were trying to score hundreds of times. We resisted them. They couldn’t get to our line. They couldn’t score. That was our mentality, to use anything we had to defend our country.”

Above all, Agulla remembers the tension hanging thick in the air.

“The game was very, very heated. We were walking through the tunnel and I remember our physio was trying to strap up one of our players. He was kind of in the middle of the tunnel and one of the French players pushed him, and he went down. I was coming from behind and there was a little fight there. Getting out of the tunnel as well, the same thing happened. Imagine how we started that second half.

“After the game we were singing, same as we did after every training session or game, with our speakers, loud, around the press area, joking there. The French guys were passing by and they were angry, ‘you are not respecting us’. Man, we are just enjoying ourselves –go away and get on your bus.

“We saw them after in the nightclub. I was watching like, ‘oh f**k, there’s going to be a fight here, where do I stand if there’s a fight? I’m not going in the middle of it, I’ll get smashed.’ I looked around and just saw Christophe Dominici on the edge with a cigar and I was like, oh man, this guy understands everything. After that everything was cool. At the end of the night, we were all drinking together.”

Agustin Pichot
Argentina’s scrum-half and captain Agustin Pichot celebrates after the rugby union World Cup third place final match France vs. Argentina, 19 October 2007 at the Parc des Princes in Paris. Argentina defeated France 34-10. (Photo by MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images)

Only in the days that followed, when the team flew back to Buenos Aires, did it dawn on them what they had accomplished. The indelible mark they had left on a whole country. The players became overnight A-listers. Agulla had an offer to play professionally in France, but he turned it down, then turned it down again, to run out for Hindu and lead the life of a 22-year-old new-found celebrity. It took him nearly six months to relent and sign for Dax.

“You know those people who clean car windows on the streets? They even knew who we were,” he says. “‘Oh you’re from the Pumas’. Everywhere. It was life-changing.”

Fernandez Lobbe was stunned to find himself stopped in the streets.

“Everywhere you went, people were like, ‘thank you’. Thank you? For what? People were so, so happy with what happened. It was just unreal… unreal.”

For many years, Argentina had campaigned for a seat at the top table. There’s a photograph from 2007 of two Pumas fans holding a national flag with ‘7 Nations now!!!’ daubed on it. These players made their case irrefutably. Five years later, Argentina were admitted to the Rugby Championship and had a franchise, the Jaguares, in Super Rugby.

“So many people came to my club to start playing rugby. It was a game-changer for rugby in Argentina,” Agulla goes on.

“People were talking about the Pumas. Argentina was on the map of rugby again. We were up there. We showed if we had a little bit of help from the union or a little bit of budget, or if we had a better domestic competition, we could really compete.”

Having a twin brother beside you, for three World Cups, in the biggest moment of your country, wearing 12 and 13 – it’s a fairytale.

Ask any of these men what they cherish most from 2007, and it isn’t a try or a tackle or even a win. It’s the brotherhood that endures, in vivid streaks of blue and white.

“It’s the time we spent together,” Contepomi says. “The barbecues we had as a family. The time we spent playing cards after dinner. Those were the moments.

“Maybe my twin brother and I got used to it, but playing a third World Cup with him, going around after the bronze match, shoulder to shoulder and thanking the Argentinean people. When I see photographs of it, I get goosebumps.

“In your national team you play with the best players. If you’re lucky, you play with friends, or make friends. But having a twin brother beside you, for three World Cups, in the biggest moment of your country, wearing 12 and 13 – it’s a fairytale.”

Hernandez still remembers the final team meeting, in the bowels of a Parisian hotel.

“Every member of the team had the chance to express themselves. A phrase everyone said was ‘thank you’. Not to one person, but for something we built, for a state of mind, a spirit. Thank you for being part of the team. Thank you for the experience.”

Argentina reached another World Cup semi-final eight years later. Agulla, Hernandez and Fernandez Lobbe were playing. The Jaguares blossomed and made a Super Rugby final before covid struck and they were, tragically, left out in the cold. The competition fragmented by region; the Jaguares were victims of geography. Pichot unsuccessfully challenged Bill Beaumont as World Rugby chair in 2020 but perhaps the game was not ready for his radical approach. Perhaps it never will be.

Whatever, the legacy of the 2007 Pumas is carved in solid bronze, burning bright in the boys and girls who took up the sport, in the strides it has made across South America since. For Argentina no es el culo del mundo.

Comments

2 Comments
K
Keith 345 days ago

Absolutely superb piece 👏 👏

c
carlos 346 days ago

Brilliant piece. The word in Spanish is “culo”, not cul. In addition, it is interesting that despite all his success as a player’s leader, Pichot is viewed with significant controversy in Argentina, despite the success. There seems to be some jealousy and a little narcissism there. Not a good soup.

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