Although the vertical blue-and-white stripes of local footballing icons like Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi are much more numerous on streets and sidewalks throughout the country, the horizontal stripes of their burly, scrum-capped countrymen represent an equally rich and storied tradition.
In his latest book, Argentine native and veteran sportswriter Rex Gowar offers a compelling and comprehensive overview of the history of the nation’s rugby team, from their first international tour in 1965, all the way up to their confrontation with the crippling effects of a global pandemic. Pumas: A History of Argentine Rugby will be celebrated by the Anglo-Argentine Society with a special book presentation in London on November 3.
There are obviously a range of culturally significant athletic traditions and institutions in Argentina. What inspired you to write about rugby in particular?
Throughout my career, both with Reuters and with the Buenos Aires Herald, I covered a lot of football, but writing any sort of history of Argentine football seemed like too huge an undertaking. This seemed more manageable, especially given that the Pumas came into being in 1965, just over 50 years ago. That doesn’t rule out going back a bit earlier to look at how the English formed sports clubs in Argentina, but the half-century mark makes it a manageable timeframe to write about.
The other thing is that it’s never actually been done in English before. There’s very little material written about the Pumas overall — and in book form, it’s essentially all Argentine.
In what ways was Argentina’s adoption of rugby different to its adoption of other British sports like football and polo?
Initially, it probably reflected a lot of what was going on in the United Kingdom. In the second half of the 19th century, the British were also grappling with different forms of football. They were asking questions like, “How do you play it?” “Do you play it with your feet, or with your hands?” They were still making rules, and there were many different trends.
One noteworthy trait is that football was, for a long time, an amateur sport in Argentina. It’s possible that when football became professional, amateurs sought rugby clubs as places that better suited their view of life, and that more closely resembled the environment they wanted to play sports in.
How has the variable of socio-economic class influenced the development and nature of rugby in Argentina?
I think it’s a complex situation. There were certainly people who wanted it to remain an amateur sport. What that meant is that there were many people who were paying to play, rather than being paid to play.
There’s a very strong conservative streak in Argentine society, and many of the Argentines who play rugby fit that broad description: a sort of middle to upper-middle-class segment of society. Obviously, with the passage of time and the expansion of the game, more and more people from all kinds of backgrounds are playing, but that’s how things were at first. When rugby went professional in 1995, Argentina took a long time to catch up with the rest of the world. There were a lot of people who struggled to figure out how to stay amateur while being competitive at the international level. At that time, much of the game in Argentina was clandestinely professional, where players were receiving small amounts of money through grants and bursaries, which was frowned upon in Argentina by the people who ran the game.
You mention the historic rivalry between Argentina and the United Kingdom in the book, specifically referencing the turbulence in the wake of the Malvinas (Falklands) War. Do you think the sport has had a positive influence on the diplomatic relationship between the two countries?
Yeah, I would say that overall, it probably has. I mean, Argentines at all levels of society believe the Islands are Argentine. I grew up and went to primary school in Argentina learning “Las islas son Argentinas,” and that was it. We would all like a diplomatic solution, but it’s very difficult at the moment. But overall, I think all sports have a positive impact in helping maintain a civilised relationship, as opposed to one of enmity. Sport, and indeed the game of rugby, is part of the special Anglo-Argentine relationship, despite the fact that Argentines want the issue of the Islands resolved their way.
The Covid pandemic was especially challenging for Argentina’s rugby community. How would you assess the recovery?
Overall, good. The sport has come through it quite well. There were obviously difficulties domestically, in terms of not being able to play at the start of the pandemic. But from what I can see, the recovery is strong. There are some exciting domestic matches going on in Argentina, and a good degree of competition, with no single team being vastly superior to the rest.
Internationally, it’s been difficult because Argentina hasn't played at home since 2019. They still finished at the bottom of the table [in the Rugby Championship, a southern hemisphere tournament that includes Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa], but that’s happened since they joined the competition in 2012. All things considered, it was still one of their best seasons.
Are you optimistic about the future of the sport in Argentina?
Because of the Argentines who are involved in the rugby community, I do think that it will continue to grow. They are all very committed people, very hard-working, and very giving — that’s just the nature of the average Argentine rugby enthusiast, regardless of how good or bad he is as a player, and regardless of whether he plays at all. The group is very unified. They have a lot of solidarity built around the sport, which has continued to grow.
They’ve just reintroduced a domestic interprovincial competition, which can only be good because of the geographic isolation of Argentina. The isolation wasn’t such an issue before there was a World Cup. Back in the amateur era, and into the early pro days, teams undertook long tours of a country, playing between six and eight matches. Argentina became a very popular destination because of its famous hospitality and fraternity.
Growing the game will be a question of time. Argentina really lost out when the Jaguares ceased to compete in 2020, which meant there was no longer a Super Rugby team in the country. The Jaguares actually made it to the finals in 2019, so that was a huge boost to the sport in Argentina. With the Jaguares, Argentina used to be able to keep their top-level players at home instead of having them leave to play in France, Italy, England, and Ireland. That top-tier level of competition hasn’t really been replaced.
But all things considered, I do think the sport does still have a very good future.
* Pumas: A History of Argentine Rugby (2021); Polaris Publishing Limited (Edinburgh, United Kingdom); 272 pages.