Sunday, February 13, 2011

France Confronts Its Rugby Fears With Argentina

In rugby union, as in much else, the French are different. Ask players from most leading rugby nations what the scariest possible opponents look like, and they’ll visualize the black shirts of the world’s perennial No. 1 team, New Zealand.

The French team at a practice session on Wednesday in Marcoussis, outside Paris.
For the French, though, the most frightening adversary wears blue and white horizontal stripes and speaks Spanish. Los Pumas of Argentina have been the recurring note in French nightmares over the past eight years, winning seven meetings out of nine over that time. France confronts its deepest fear again Saturday, when it plays Argentina in Montpellier.
It is a relationship summed up by the former national coach Bernard Laporte, who told L’Equipe newspaper in the past week, “I don’t have good memories of matches against them.”

This is hardly surprising. Laporte, who was coach from 1999 to 2007 before becoming, briefly, France’s sports minister, lost six out of seven to Argentina, including three shattering home defeats.
In 2004, Argentina became the first team to beat France in Marseille, winning 24-14 in a place New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and England had fallen in the previous four years.
Then in 2007, shattering defeats by the Pumas, whose name comes from a South African writer’s misidentification of the jaguarette on their badge, bookended France’s term as host of the World Cup. Argentina outfought and outthought France on a traumatic opening night for the host, winning more completely than the 17-12 scoreline suggested. In the third-place decider, Laporte’s last match in charge, Argentina devastated the French with the brilliantly fluent attacking rugby France regards as its own, winning 34-10.
What is remarkable about this is that France is the perennial superpower of Northern Hemisphere rugby, winner of five Six Nations championships in the past nine seasons. It won a Six Nations Grand Slam — beating all five opponents — earlier this year, then, in its next match, was hammered 41-13 in Buenos Aires.
Argentina is, by contrast, rugby’s great loose end, the strongest nation outside the game’s two great annual competitions — Europe’s Six Nations teams and the Southern Hemisphere’s Tri Nations teams, which it is scheduled to join in 2012. Its domestic rugby maintains the amateur traditions of the game’s past — Argentina was the one nation exempted when the Pugh report on amateurism, which paved the way to open professionalism, lacerated every other significant rugby nation for hypocrisy about payments to players in 1994.
This means Argentine rugby players must go abroad to make a living from their skills. Mostly they go to France, whose leading clubs are appreciative consumers of incoming talent.
Ten out of the 15 Argentine starters Saturday play their rugby in France. They include the center three-quarter Santiago Fernández, the only player on either side who plays for the host club of the Saturday match, Montpellier.
It means that where most teams visiting France find the experience fascinating but sometimes disconcerting, with differences in language and culture, the Argentines feel at home. They are also highly motivated. As Fabien Galthié, the highly intelligent former French national captain, who now coaches the Montpellier club, told L’Equipe this week: “To play France is like playing themselves. France’s players are their teammates and friends. They want their colleagues to regard them as good players, so they play with every fiber of their being.”
There are also similarities in style, according to Laporte, the former French national coach. “They love to battle and to scrap,” Laporte said. “They are very strong in the phases that we like most, for instance, the scrum. They have always had match-winning players and a way of playing that resembles ours.”
French players have been lining up this week to compliment the quality of their opponents.
“I could not have had better teachers,” Thomas Domingo, the prop forward who will play for the first time against the Argentine players Martín Scelzo and Mario Ledesma, his front-row teammates for France’s current club champion, Clermont Auvergne, told the Web site rugbyrama. “Above all they are intelligent players who think a great deal about how to improve their scrummaging. And they’re shrewd as well.”
At the same time, it is possible that Argentina is coming down from the peak of third place it achieved at the 2007 World Cup, with a group of players Laporte correctly called “an exceptional generation.”
Gifted young players like the fullback Martín Rodríguez Gurruchaga have emerged to play alongside veterans like Ledesma, 37, and the team’s captain, Felipe Contepomi, 33, who scored 31 points in Argentina’s 41-13 victory over France in Buenos Aires. But Laporte, previewing Saturday’s match, said he would worry much more if Argentina still had players like Agustín Pichot and Ignacio Corleto, two of the stars of 2007.
Argentina may also be about to lose familiarity with France. Admission to the Tri-Nations in 2012 is Argentina’s great opportunity, but also a huge challenge. Regular top-class international competition should give it a better chance to beat other teams but will also demand that players concentrate their efforts in the Southern Hemisphere. If that shift happens, French fans would miss Argentine stars at their clubs, but maybe not the edge that familiarity gives them in test matches against France.


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