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Argentina make it a night to remember

Paul Ackford9/9/07

It will be remembered as the match that stunned a nation. Not necessarily because of the result. Argentina had beaten France in four of their last five encounters, and England had also suffered at Twickenham last autumn. We expected Argentina to make a decent fist of it but few expected the nature of their triumph.

It is important to understand the context to appreciate the significance. This was the opening game of the 2007 World Cup, a match that a team, a president and a country had been building up to for months. The opening ceremony with its stark images of sinewy men clad in black rhythmically beating oil drums with blocks of wood echoed the insistent, repetitive clamour of a public demanding its rugby team repeat the triumph of its footballers.

Before the combatants entered the arena the emotional charge was cranked up still further with flashbacks on the big stadium screen of pivotal moments from past World Cups. There was a parade of the sport's legends in which New Zealand were represented by Jonah Lomu, England by Steve Thompson and France by the flanker-turned-sculptor Jean-Pierre Rives. Rives and Keith Wood both carried little children with them as they scampered across the pitch.

At every turn a statement was being made about rugby's rhythms, its power, its values and into this maelstrom walked Argentina and France. Both teams were made to wait as introductory words were spoken by French rugby president Bernard Lapasset and Syd Millar, chairman of the International Rugby Board. The French were impassive, apparently certain of their ability to deliver. The Argentinians, meanwhile, hopped and hugged each other in a fever of adrenalin and uncertainty. This is why the game will be remembered. Opening matches in World Cups strip teams of their excuses. Everyone has had time to prepare properly, there are no out-of-season clashes which see nations travelling depleted and out of sorts. And on Friday night there was the additional convulsing realisation that the loser faced a potential early exit from the competition. If France do not beat Ireland in Paris on September 21, the hosts could be out.

Don't for a moment think that Argentina were lucky, that they caught France on a bad night and if the match were replayed the result would be different. Yes, France made a bunch of mistakes. They were unable to get good field position, they turned over ball, they lost composure and they missed two simple penalties in front of the posts at crucial stages in the match. But none of that should detract from how good Argentina were.

This was a side that found a new dimension. They were actually stuffed up front, their traditional power base. The French forwards drove them back in the scrums and had them retreating off mauls from line-outs. Yet how did Argentina respond? In the first half especially they taught France a lesson in back play. Felipe Contepomi, playing out of his usual position to accommodate Juan Martin Hernandez at outside half, provided the touches that France never found, even in the final quarter when coach Bernard Laporte emptied his bench.

Argentina put pace on the ball. Their try, although coming off an intercept, was fashioned by the deft hands of Manuel Contepomi and the searing speed of Ignacio Corleto, who burst through the hole. For the first 50 minutes of the match they were a revelation. And in the last half hour, when the enormity of what they were about to achieve seemed to shut down their expansionist intentions, they simply put up a defensive wall that France could not breach and booted the leather off the ball.

At the end, as the Argentinian bench ran on to engulf their mates in a ringed orgy of congratulation, there were echoes of another seminal rugby moment. It took me back to Ellis Park, South Africa, in 1995, and Francois Pienaar's circle of prayer after the Boks had clinched the World Cup. That was the end of the competition, this only the beginning. But already Argentina have contributed an enduring memory. The sight of beaming sweat-stained Argentinian forwards tugging at the badges on their shirts as they headed down the tunnel will take some time to fade.



PAUL ACKFORD - Sunday Telegraph | Sunday, 9 September 2007 | Comment on this article

Articles
Paul Ackford

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