Los Pumas vs. Wallabies

Australia 54 (Folau three, Ashley-Cooper, Tomane, Robinson, Foley tries; Lealiifano two conversions, two penalties, Cooper penalty, conversion, Foley two conversions) beat Argentina 17 (Bosch, Landajo tries; Sánchez two conversions, penalty) at Estadio Gigante de Arroyito, Rosario, crowd ~40,000, Rugby Championship, 5 October 2013.

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English people joke that Australians are so well-balanced because they have a chip on each shoulder, such is their insecurity when it comes to the mother country. The same jibe could be levelled at Rosario, Argentina’s second city that reluctantly plays second fiddle to Buenos Aires, four hours coach down the road.

Set on a brown sludgy river that makes the Yarra’s water look drinkable, Rosario is a handsome, European city absolutely coated in graffiti to their two football clubs: the blue-and-gold of Rosario Central to the north, the black-and-red of high-flying Newell’s Old Boys to the south. Perhaps the graffiti plague reflects the town’s rebellious political spirit – birthplace of socialist icon Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, and the site where newly independent Argentina’s national flag was raised for the first time in 1812.

Shame that same political mettle has withered in the new millennium – ahead of October’s provincial elections, Rosario’s voters had a choice between anti-Semitic Hermes Binner’s underwhelming promise of a return to “un pais normal” (‘a normal country’), and a chap named Obeid. As a New South Welshman, I felt obliged to warn the locals that Obeids and state politics don’t tend to mix well.

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On a beautiful spring day, 40,000 made their way to the Estadio Gigante de Arroyito; a steep, claustrophobic stadium cramped into suburban streets, leaving barely any space for the corporate promo girls peddling alcohol-free Quilmes and mobile phone plans. The crowd – made up of youth rugby teams, English gap students, and well-to-do fathers with their sons – had filled the terrace at the southern end of the crowd where the Australians were warming up for their wooden spoon battle.

An Argentine win would have handed the ‘honour’ to the visitors, who had only managed a scabby 14-13 victory against the Pumas in Perth earlier in the Rugby Championship. Perhaps more importantly, it was the last international cap for Argentine stalwart Felipe Contepomi – Argentina’s games record holder – with ‘The Doctor’ retiring from the game to join his father’s medical practice, proving rugby’s private-school stereotype knows no borders.

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Keen to spoil the party, Australia set the tone early when Joseph Tomane popped a ball for Israel Folau to score in front of a muted crowd. The following eight minutes produced seven scrums (to the delight of the Argentine crowd, to whom two tonnes of human hurtling towards each other is still a thrilling novelty rather than a frustrating stoppage), five penalties, and a James Slipper yellow card, but no points, as the Wallabies demonstrated a steely grit that is so often missing from their clashes with stronger opponents.

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Argentina’s foothold was wasted by the sin-binned Pablo Matera, who appeared to comprehend almost none of the tongue-lashing dealt out by the English referee. Adam Ashley-Cooper pinned his ears back to add Australia’s second try before Folau produced a sidestep right out of the Brad Fittler copybook a minute later, teeing up a 25-10 lead at the break, as the Aussies enjoyed their oranges in Bunnings chairs in the middle of the pitch.

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Folau again punched through the Pumas’ paper-thin defence immediately after the restart, and the locals became restless. One member of a nearby junior club – still in his muddy gear from the afternoon’s game, and judging by his ample figure, likely a prop forward – must have had the strongest English in his cohort, stepping up to pepper the nearby Wallabies subs with abuse (the heavily accented ‘blond marther farker’ being his barb of choice).

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Argentina kept in touch thanks to a barge-over try and a yellow card to Rob Simmons for a brainless shoulder charge, but Australia sunk their teeth in during the final 20 minutes. First a 60-metre Tomane solo effort, then a rare Benn Robinson five-pointer, and finally a try on debut for Bernard Foley with the final action of the game, completing a sweeping end-to-end move that provided a fitting conclusion to the entire tournament.

Although a dose of 80th-minute salt in the wound isn’t usually worth too much celebration, Foley’s late contribution was particularly thrilling for perhaps the only Aloysian Old Boy in attendance – from watching stormy clashes with Knox from the dusty College Oval in Willoughby to this carve-up of the Argies from behind Rosario’s chicken-wire fence.

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It’s difficult to evaluate whether the 50-point strafing is a sign of genuine improvement under coach Ewen McKenzie – and a commitment to running rugby that adequately showcases the wares of Israel Folau, doubtless the code’s best player – or a continuation of the rocks-and-diamonds form that characterised the Robbie Deans era; a frustrating tendency to bully weaker sides but falter under the stern examination of South Africa and New Zealand.

Something to ponder as I paced back to the bus station to get back to Buenos Aires in the wee hours of Sunday morning, just in time to watch the Sydney Roosters claim a premiership that tasted awfully bittersweet for a supporter stuck halfway around the world.

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