As I dragged myself out of bed at 6am yesterday to watch the World Cup Quarter finals, splashing warm tea on my face and enjoying a mug of bacon, I was surprised by some of what I saw. Actually, that is technically not true. I was more surprised by something that I heard.
The Australia and South Africa game messed with my head a little bit as the Antipodeans won, despite being in their own third for 75% of the game. However, I was not really that surprised that the breakdown reached disgraceful levels of competition: the southern hemisphere press at this World Cup have made a song and dance about how the SANZAR teams play free flowing, high scoring rugby. As this game was one car crash away from being a crime scene, referee Bryce Lawrence perhaps thought it was his duty to allow hands in at ruck time, so that more play could be strung together and turnover tries more likely?
The result of this was that David Pocock took it upon himself to try and pinch every ball that came near him. Sometimes it was magnificent and legal. Many times, though, it was a hand digging round the side or pouring over an additional man that had made it a ruck. Fair play to Pocock: he played the referee brilliantly and he must have the strongest torso in World rugby (as well as a face that can take a punch very well!).
As unlikely a victory as this was for Australia, however, it was not what surprised me. It was not even an instance or a statement in or about this game. No. It was something that happened, followed by something that was said, in the All Blacks versus Argentina game.
As that final Quarter Final played out us neutrals had to endure some snore inducing discussions about whether Colin Slade was good enough to replace his holiness Dan Carter. Indeed as Slade dropped a pass 5 minutes in that nearly led to a try for Argentina you could almost feel five million Kiwis willing an injury on him. With 35 minutes played, the shrunken Slade limped off, and someone else in Aaron Cruden, who still didn’t quite measure up to Dan, was tasked with stringing play together.
This was just preamble, though. It was still unremarkable. What surprised me in this game was actually the moment that Argentina scored. In fact it was the moment leading up to that score. Not because of the fact that New Zealand leaked a try, but because of the manner in which they leaked that try.
Before flanker Cabello pounced over the try line there was a break. No. 8 Leonardo Senatore picked from the base of a scrum and cruised past McCaw and Read into the dead zone between the back three and the stand-off. He made a B-line for the right-hand corner and as the commentator said something about being an “amateur” he was brought down, metres from the line.
I sat up.
Before I could process what I may have misheard the Argentines were whooping and cheering, delighted that they had broken the All Blacks and were in this game.
Was it true? Was Senatore a punter like me or you?
I did some quick research. Sure enough, the 6ft 2 no. 8 was listed as playing for hometown club Gimnasia y Esgrima (Rosario) on the official Pumas website. Although technically an amateur, with no big European team experience and a name few would know, he had streaked past men whose faces were probably on lunch boxes Down Under. In short, he fitted in.
This got my mind working. I checked the IRB website to see how many players were playing in Argentina, as well as how many kids. Nothing. No information courtesy of the IRB. I could not possibly guess at how far rugby was going, so I hit the blogs.
After about an hour and a half of reading several Argentinean blogs (some in broken English, some in my misGoogled, broken Spanish) I had gleaned that Argentina had about 100,000 players across all clubs, and 250 ‘elite’ players. There are currently no professional teams in Argentina.
Again this perplexed me. With the exception of the known stars in Europe Argentina had no pro rugby and 250 support players, of varying ability, to pick from and they still beat Scotland. A team that has had professionalism in some guise since 1997. Wow.
So I considered what lessons we in Scotland could learn from those in South America.
There club rugby is intricate, but it involves numerous steps up to siphon off the best players and ensure they play competitive rugby.
Each region of the vast country has their own Union. Some are stronger than others. With a population of roughly 40 million, huge poverty and an obsession with football it is obvious that there will be few rugby players as a result, in comparison to the population. Each of these Unions have their own club competition. Buenos Aires has the strongest of these competitions, but in order to keep up some of the other Unions combine to form better leagues, so, for example, the regions of Santa Fe, Rosario and Entre Rios all have one set of leagues, known as the Torneo Del Litoral. Buenos Aires, Córdoba and Tucumán all have their own regional competitions.
Moving on from this there is more competition for the better teams. From the Torneo Del Litoral the best four teams go on to play in the Torneo Del Interior alongside teams that qualify from the Noroeste, Centro, Noreste, Pampeana, Oeste and Patagónico leagues. Sixteen teams in total. Meanwhile, outside of this, in Buenos Aires their league runs alone as it is the most competitive. At the end of Bueonos Aires’ Torneo de la URBA and the Torneo Del Interior there is another step up.
The best two teams from both of these competitions go on to play each other in semi-finals, the winner of both competitions playing the runners-up of the other competition. The final match crowns the winner of Nacional de Clubs and the best team in Argentina. In November 2010 it was won by Hindú Club, perhaps Argentina’s most successful and well known team.
Now in Scotland we could say that with a smaller country we have less geographic issues to contend with and our best teams are already in our top league, playing each other regularly. “We don’t need to learn lessons from the Argentine set-up”. But the fact remains that a guy that has played in the Torneo Del Literal, moving from there to the Torneo Del Interior and perhaps onto the Nacional De Clubes has just run past Richie McCaw.
Do we have amateurs that could do this? Maybe, maybe not.
The truth is that our competitions are not nearly as gruelling as this. We also do not have the level of rep rugby that Argentinean amateurs can play. They have all the age grade teams, but they also have a competition for regional selects. Their Campeonato Argentino competition runs through March and April and eight regions play with their best players from the Interior and Nacional competitions. There is further promotion of the best players they have.
In the summer there was even greater exposure as the best players from that competition were selected to play for a Pampas XV that competed in the Vodacom Cup alongside Currie Cup teams. An ‘amateur’ team that won that entire competition. Many of that team ended up at the World Cup and in the Quarter Finals.
This we do not have. We have a British & Irish Cup for three teams, a half season Cup competition that is struggling to attract publicity and fans, and a two-game-programme for a Club International. The competition is differing and exclusive for three teams, and the amount of highest quality games is limited for the best players.
I will admit that after researching I was surprised at the system in Argentina. They did not throw themselves into professionalism like Scotland did. They have built things up. As a result they are producing international standard ‘amateurs’ and they are good enough to win against Currie Cup teams. Their national team is also entering the SANZAR competition, formerly the Tri-Nations, and they look like they have enough quality to support at least one Super Rugby franchise.
Things could be looking up for Argentine rugby, and there is a tiny gap between their best club players and their international stars. They have surprised me, but what can I learn from them?
Well until we at least try to emulate their District competition we will never have enough competition for our two Club International squads. We will also never have enough high-quality game-time for our promising kids. We also need more competition for those B&I Cup spots, so that the product we put into that competition is both competitive and a result of a gruelling process.
Argentina play very few international matches. Maybe, now we are 10th in the World, behind Tonga, and even less of a lucrative and attractive touring option to the top tier nations, we should become more insular with our rugby. At least that way we may have more hardened players for Edinburgh and Glasgow to choose from…