Pride, trust and Michael Cheika - The inside story of how Argentina stunned the rugby world

Author
Newstalk ZB / NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 15 Nov 2020, 4:07PM
Argentina players wave to the crowd as they celebrate after the Tri-Nations rugby test between Argentina and New Zealand at Bankwest Stadium. Photo / AP
Argentina players wave to the crowd as they celebrate after the Tri-Nations rugby test between Argentina and New Zealand at Bankwest Stadium. Photo / AP

Pride, trust and Michael Cheika - The inside story of how Argentina stunned the rugby world

Author
Newstalk ZB / NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 15 Nov 2020, 4:07PM

They were representing a country in a Covid lockdown since March. Half a dozen players, plus inspirational head coach Mario Ledesma, have had the virus. They haven't played a game together since the Rugby World Cup 13 months ago. They have just beaten the All Blacks for the first time.

No wonder emotions were running high on the Bankwest Stadium pitch in Western Sydney even before the final whistle blew for their epic 25-15 victory over a full-strength All Black side presumably highly motivated to respond to last weekend's defeat to the Wallabies in Brisbane.

There was singing in grandstand and tears in the coaching box. In the final moments before referee Angus Gardner signalled fulltime, Ledesma, having congratulated his fellow coaches, including former Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika, looked at his players on the pitch and quickly looked away, overcome.

"It's kind of surreal what just happened out there," Ledesma said afterwards. "Not just the result, but even playing the game was surreal for us."

It is one of the biggest upsets in test rugby history because it's difficult to imagine a more challenging build-up to a test. The Pumas are the only team in the Tri Nations in Australia to go through a strict quarantine which meant they couldn't train as a team for weeks. Their lack of game time meant the players suffered multiple soft tissue injuries in training.

Cheika, the Aussie who delivered a key message to the squad on his arrival, often had to view trainings from a coaches' box away from the field and communicated via Zoom meetings.

And that's before we get into what's happening at home; there are more than 1.1 million cases of Covid in Argentina and more than 35,000 people have died from the virus.

"It's tough over there at the moment," captain Pablo Matera said. "It was difficult for us to be all together here in Australia. We're representing a lot of things. I think that was a blessing in the energy we had."

With monstrous flanker Matera in charge they took control from the opening whistle. They showed greater discipline and composure – problem areas in the past, but better than the All Blacks on Saturday – and dictated terms through their first-five Nicolas Sanchez, who scored all their points.

Fundamentally, though, the win was due to a defensive wall built on pride and trust and the All Blacks had no answer to it. From a New Zealand perspective, there will be real concern it could happen again at Newcastle's McDonald Jones Stadium in a fortnight.

"We felt the trust," Matera said. "We were confident without the ball. We were disciplined and knew the guy beside us would do the job."

How did they do it? "There's no magic formula," Ledesma replied.

"We started working in January with Pablo and some of the boys around what team we wanted and we talked about identity and culture. The big difference I guess is that they own it now. It's their team. It's always the players and they've been great through the pandemic situation, just going from quarantine to quarantine – some of the boys haven't seen their families for four months. They haven't complained once."

Ledesma agreed it was the coaching highlight of his career. "It has to be up there – 100 per cent – for the emotional journey we've been on and everything we've experienced.

"I think it's the only team we haven't beaten. I think we'll remember this for a long time coming, not only because of the game but for the special situation that got us to the game."

Asked about the influence of Cheika, the former Wallabies head coach who was sacked last year, Matera revealed a key piece of advice delivered by the Australian.

"Seeing us as a team from the outside, he came to us on the first day and said 'hey, what are you waiting for? You've got everything – you've got big players, physical players, young players, a lot of energy, go and take it. Just take it.' That made us believe in ourselves a lot."

At the end, Ledesma couldn't explain what he'd witnessed.

"We've come a long way. It comes down to energy and commitment and playing for the most beautiful jersey in the world."