ARGENTINA COME TO the new Lansdowne Road tomorrow.
They arrive as the eighth-ranked team in the world, nipping at the heels of our seventh spot.
For 11 years the two sides have contested a stirring rivalry, through World Cups and “friendlies” -if one can ever use the latter term with regard to a test match of rugby football, let alone between these two sides.
Lens is a small town in northern France, the mention of which, for Irish rugby followers, still awakens long-repressed memories of pain and humilation.
The playoff between Ireland and Argentina to qualify for the quarter-finals of the 1999 World Cup was a watershed moment in the history of Irish rugby.
The last, desperate minutes of a 28-24 defeat saw Ireland suffering the indignity of having to resort to a 14-man lineout in order to avoid having to pre-qualify for the 2003 World Cup. The defeat left a team and nation stunned. Who were these Argentinians anyway?
At the old Lansdowne Road, 1990, a somewhat portly Argentinian gentleman took the kick-off for the touring team. The crowd stirred a little as he stroked it straight through the Irish posts for a “look what I can do” moment.
At the time, this was extraordinary. But this gentleman was no ordinary gentleman; the player with the majestic boot was 39-years-old and his name was Hugo Porta. On the day when current international referee Alain Rolland made his only test start and the legendary Porta one of his last, there was as yet no special rivalry to speak of between the two nations.
These were the fiercely amateur days after all, with Argentina perceived by many to be merely a small rugby backwater somewhere southwest of Valentia island.
Few had heard of Porta, fewer still of the conveyor belt of powerful and skilled front row forwards that the country churned out like prize steaks, and almost nobody knew of the brutal effiency of their scrummaging technique, the Bajadita. Despite being famed as the nation of Maradona, Villa and Ardiles, Argentina had a strong rugby heritage which Ireland learned all about that on that night in Lens in 1999.
In 2003, having toured the lesser known outposts of rugby-playing Europe, Ireland arrived in Australia to find Los Pumas in their World Cup group once again.
An intense, sometimes ferocious contest saw Ireland come out as winners by a single point, with the abiding memory being Alan Quinlan’s shoulder being dislocated in the act of scoring the only try of the game. The vital win was chalked up, but the intensity of the rivalry had become even greater.
That the Argentians were then drawn in Ireland’s group for the 2007 World Cup in France seemed quite appropriate. Even more apt that they should be the final group opponents for the Irish as they tried to drag themselves out of a group despite playing, at times, shambolic rugby.
A 15-point defeat later and Ireland were heading home, their fans still wondering when they would awaken from the nightmare. Losing to the Argentians was one thing, but the sorest point was that this one didn’t come as a surprise.
In between times we’ve seen the two teams play brutal contests as part of summer tours on Argentinian soil, at home in Croke Rark and even in lesser tournaments like the Churchill Cup.
There seems to be an undercurrent between the teams, something perhaps strengthened by Felipe Contepomi’s years being feted in Leinster while jeered in Cork and Limerick as the pantomime villain. Dr Phil was back in Thomond this year with Toulon and the local support would have taken special joy in seeing the man from Buenos Aires receive a yellow card that day.
The two teams haven’t been drawn in the same group for the 2011 tournament in New Zealand. Seems a shame in a way, so it’s only right and proper that Argentina should be involved in this Autumn test series, the four back-to-back games are more akin to a World Cup experience than is usually the case.
After the country’s high of seeing Ireland not completely capitulate to the All Blacks, the men led by Contepomi are set up to play the role of spoilers for Irish rugby.
As the new ould enemy, they might like nothing better.