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Dublin: 15 °C Tuesday 21 May, 2019
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Sexton holds key to Ireland's Clásico against Argentina says Hernández

The Pumas magician says his relationship with Ronan O’Gara is now an ‘awesome’ one.

Murray Kinsella reports from the Vale Resort

THE COOLEST MAN at the World Cup? A meeting with Juan Martín Hernández does little to disprove the feeling that nothing fazes the Argentina playmaker.

Now 33 years of age, ‘El Mago’ first played in a World Cup in 2003.

Juan Martin Hernandez Hernández has sparkled at this World Cup. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Many Irish supporters and players will remember his contributions to the 2007 tournament, when perhaps at the very peak of his powers as an international force, before he missed out through injury in 2011.

This year, the Pumas magician has reeled back the years in a characteristically laidback and highly-enjoyable manner. His flicks, offloads, assists and passing have been exceptional for Daniel Hourcade’s side as they racked up 22 tries in four pool games.

Hernández does, of course, still have the scope for error, as with the careless tip on that went to ground against Namibia last weekend and led to a try for the minnows. That seemingly in-built frailty is part of what makes Hernández such a joy to watch.

He, like the rest of us, is imperfect.

This weekend a somewhat familiar foe lies in wait for Hernández and the Pumas. The World Cup meetings between Ireland and the Argentinians are famous or infamous depending on which side one’s loyalties lie.

Hernández recalls watching as a youngster in 1999 when Gonzalo Quesada’s kicking and Diego Albanese’s try saw the Pumas squeeze out Ireland in Lens in the quarter-final play-off.

Eight years later, Hernández had a sublime World Cup in the 10 shirt to help his side swat Ireland aside on a 30-15 scoreline and on towards a remarkable third-place finish.

“Of course it is 2007,” says Hernández of his fondest memory of playing Ireland. “It was a good day for us, but I also remember 2003 when I was on the bench and we lost by one point.

Juan Martin Hernandez tackles Denis Hickie Hernández puts in a hit on Denis Hickie in 2007. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I remember in ’99 as well when we went through to the quarter-finals for the first time. I was not part of the team then, I was very young, but I remember watching on TV. These games are like classics, a derby.

“I know Ireland has European teams but for us it became a nice challenge, a good derby.”

The 2007 win was one of the big moments for Argentina as a rugby nation, allowing them to finish the pool campaign with four wins and advance into a quarter-final against Scotland.

“Ireland had to score three tries and they scored first,” recalls Hernández. “We were not afraid, we had a great game. I would say 80% of the team was playing in France and we had all our families and all our friends there at the stadium.

It was a very good day for us because we could share afterwards qualification with our closest friends and families. It was a very big day.”

In that ’07 clash in Paris, Hernández’s classy and composed performance at out-half overshadowed that of Ronan O’Gara opposite him, whose difficult day with the boot was uncharacteristic.

Indeed, there was some bad blood between the pair at that point in time, but Hernández and O’Gara developed something of a friendship when the latter coached the former at Racing 92 in the 2013/14 season.

“It’s a very good relationship, an awesome relationship,” says Hernández. “Before when I used to play against him… you don’t hate anyone in rugby, but he was someone you wouldn’t like!

ArgentinaÕs Juan Martin Hernandez Hernández has worn the 12 shirt for the Pumas.

“But I was lucky enough to have him to coach me for one year at Racing, and I discovered a good person. All of us know what a great player he was, but I know him more now, and have a great relationship with him.

“I’ve texted to ask him if he’s coming to the game, and he said maybe.”

Hernández is more likely to be wearing the 12 shirt for the Pumas on Sunday in Cardiff, although he still retains an important playmaking influence from that position when he is in the side.

Ireland’s 10 on this occasion remains in some doubt, with Ian Madigan standing by to deputise for Johnny Sexton if the regular first-choice cannot recover from his adductor strain.

Having played with Sexton at Racing in that same 2013/14 season and having extensively analysed Ireland, Hernández is in no doubt about the importance of the out-half to Joe Schmidt’s side.

“I think he’s the most important player,” says Hernández. “He’s the one that has the tempo of the team, when they run, when they play, when they kick, everything. I think he’s key to their detail.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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