England 51 (Two penalty tries, Yarde two, Burns, Webber, Eastmond tries; Burns four conversions, two penalties, Myler conversion) beat Argentina 26 (Montero, Leonardi tries; Bustos two conversions, four penalties) at Estadio José Amalfitani, crowd ~30,000, Rugby Test match, 15 June 2013.
“Silencio, por favor,” the earnest ground announcer demands through the stadium’s tinny PA system, his request only inciting more whistles from the partisan crowd. England’s number ten slots the conversion and the crowd falls silent, bar a few polite golf claps from the sideline and the applause of the two visiting fans brave (or silly) enough to bring a St. George’s cross into the Estadio José Amalfitani, akin to carrying a red rag into a bull pen.
“Transformación: numero diez, Frrreddie Burrrns,” the announcer says in his thick porteño burr, struggling with the English names. He would have been relieved that Billy Twelvetrees was sent to Australia midweek to join the Lions Tour, although I’m sure he’s dreading Los Pumas‘ meeting with the Irakli Abuseridze-led Georgians this Saturday in San Juan. Enrique Iglesias’ ‘I Like How It Feels’ blares out of the tannoy, Argentina kicks off, and the process is repeated.
The venue for the second and final Test of England’s South American tour is Velez Sarsfield’s stadium – a ground I have visited twice before, except on those occasions, the clientele was distinctly more ‘rustic’. Today, Buenos Aires’ well-heeled denizens make their way to Liniers in the city’s west, to a stadium considered salubrious by Argentine standards but a long way from the Starbucks, shoe shops, and manicured streets of San Isidro in rugby’s heartland. To paint the picture, imagine Sydney’s rugby elite catching the train from Gordon to Penrith to watch the Wallabies at Centrebet Stadium; thousands of merchant bankers walking past Maccas and Krispy Kreme on Mulgoa Road, dressed to the nines in Polo Ralph Lauren and llama wool scarves.
Around 30,000 toffs filled la cancha on a chilly but brilliant Saturday afternoon for the clash of two historic rivals sharing a long held enmity, stoked more recently by The Sun‘s headline, Maradona’s hand, Beckham’s boot, and Cristina’s rhetoric. You don’t have to walk far in Buenos Aires to find a souvenir vendor selling flag patches claiming ownership of the Falklands or a piece of graffiti proclaiming ‘Las Malvinas son Argentinas’. Nor do you have to spend much time in a stadium before you hear ‘El que no salta es un ingles’ ring out; today the cantito is lead by the thousands of junior rugby players located on the upper deck of the main grandstand, all wearing their club colours to create a resplendent technicolour patchwork in the fading afternoon sun.
Considering the sincere ill will Argentines feel towards England, ‘God Save the Queen’ was treated with a surprising amount of respect by the home fans (doubtless, this would have been a different story with a football crowd). Perhaps the Argies were saving their vocal chords for a rousing rendition of their own anthem, a lengthy number which transitions from a stirring instrumental to jingoistic lyrics about the glory of death.
Welsh referee Nigel Owens – who came out as gay in 2007, an incredibly brave decision given the hyper-masculine nature of sport – got the game underway, contested by two largely second-string sides. England were missing 14 players to Lions duty Down Under, and Argentina were giving their European-based players a well earned break after the gruelling northern winter. Looking to avenge a 32-3 shutout in Salta the week earlier, Los Pumas opened up a 12-6 lead off the boot of Martín Bustos Moyano, channelling Jonny Wilkinson’s now fashionable cupped hands and crouched stance. The hosts’ problem was their spaghetti-kneed defence every time the English entered their 22, forfeiting three tries (and a yellow card to Bustos) immediately before the break to trail 25-12.
From my vantage point at the opposite end of the ground, it was nearly impossible to pick up on England’s two penalty tries. The crowd barely raised a peep. It reminded me of a Sydney AFL crowd: no one really knew what was going on. They knew they should boo Burns (or maybe they were just saying ‘boo-urns‘) and they knew they should cheer Bustos; they knew the gringos in the fetching burgundy ensemble were the bad guys and the sky blue and white hoops were the heroes. But aside from that, nada. Normally rugby crowds are a cacophony of “From the side, ref!” and “They’ve been doing it all day, sir!”, but not this one. Maybe hounding the árbitro is something Argentina’s rah-rahs leave for unwashed football hinchas, although I reckon they need their own version of Barry Hall Hall to get them up to speed with the finer points of this peculiar foreign game.
After the interval, Argentina huffed and puffed and threatened to re-enter the contest after claiming the first five-pointer of the second stanza through Manuel Montero, one of the hard-working gordos (literally ‘fats’, the name given to the forwards in Spanish, which perhaps makes the ‘piggies’ monicker seem slightly less offensive). Their efforts weren’t enough; England trampled the hosts in an impressive second-half display, netting 51 points for the match against Los Pumas‘ wafer-thin defence.
The demolition job wasn’t enough to appease one British photojournalist, who returned from the grandstand in the second half in a lather, his wild ginger hair ruffled and his eyebrows furrowed furiously, because the “fucking wifi wasn’t working.” I felt like reminding snapper No.071 that Buenos Aires is a city where ATMs routinely run out of money, traffic is customarily ground to a halt by protest-happy locals, and the main artery – Avenida Nueve de Julio – has been clogged by snail’s pace renovations for the last year. A patchy internet connection is the least of your worries.
England’s dominant performance was also dampened for 21-year-old winger Marland Yarde, despite scoring two tries on Test debut. The St. Lucia-born flyer with a mop of dreadlocks – think a stouter version of Lote Tuqiri – was forced to suffer the slings of racist abuse from the gallery all afternoon, and although it’s not exactly swastika-toting National Front skinheads frothing at the mouth, there’s something even more jarring about hearing a 5-year-old kid call out ‘negrito’ in public. It appears more ignorant than malicious, but it’s disturbing nonetheless. Up and about after crossing the stripe twice in his first appearance in an England jumper, and clearly worn down by the crowd’s persistent attention, Yarde gave a nice serve to the locals after his second touchdown, before maturely walking away from a minor scuffle with an opponent just before full-time, probably content that England was dominating the only battle that really matters: the scoreboard.
Two huge glitter cannons were detonated as the visitors lifted the venerated QBE Insurance Cup – perhaps it’s too soon to establish the ‘Malvinas Trophy’ or the ‘Thatcher-Galtieri Memorial Shield’. It was hard to get a read on Argentina’s form ahead of the Wallabies’ October visit, given so many top-line players were missing. In any case, it’s sure to be a memorable experience as a lonely Australian surrounded by 41,000 rabid Argentines in the Estadio Gigante de Arroyito – even if the majority are wearing Gucci jeans and a Dior fragrance.