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SPORTS | 15-09-2023 06:00

Rugby in Argentina: an 'elite' sport changing at a slow pace

Still overshadowed by football, rugby is growing in popularity in Argentina and starting to leave behind its domestic image of an 'upper class' sport, thanks in large part to the success of the Pumas.

While heavily overshadowed by football, rugby is growing in popularity in Argentina and starting to leave behind its domestic image of an 'upper class' sport. A slow but palpable transformation underlies today’s increasingly ambitious Pumas.

In the years before and after the start of the previous century, English, Irish and Scottish immigrants arriving in Argentina, attracted by the 'promised land' of the new continent, brought with them their 'modern' games.

The sport thrived in elite colleges, universities and clubs of the national capital at institutions now aged over 100 years old, like Belgrano, CASI (Club Atlético San Isidro), CUBA (Club Universitario Buenos Aires) or SIC (San Isidro Club), where the medical student Ernesto 'Che' Guevara became famous in the early 1950s.

It was amateur rugby back then but football had already turned professional, a growing difference.

Today, however, the rugby world "is changing due to a professional circuit within Argentine rugby,” plus Argentines emigrating to countries where rugby has already been professional for many years, “with doors opening a bit more than before to youngsters from other [social] sectors," explains Sebastián Fuentes, a social anthropologist and researcher at the CONICET scientific research council.

"There are no professional players in Argentina," affirms the Unión Argentina de Rugby (UAR), or at least a label only applying to a handful of over 100,000 rugby-players.

The Pumas all play in clubs abroad and the only professional players in the country are the Argentina XV (the second national squad) and two franchises playing in the new Super Rugby Americas league, which only runs for a few matches. And Los Pumas 7.

 

The detonator

It is popular to link the generally good results of the Pumas to the changing face of Argentine rugby.

For emblematic former national team captain Agustín Pichot, rugby "is a huge niche" although he admits that "football is something else."

"[The year] 2007 was a great, big detonator," with Argentina’s third-place finish in the World Cup, its best performance in its history, assures Jorge Busico, a veteran rugby columnist and founder of a school for journalism in Buenos Aires.

With the Pumas finishing as World Cup medallists, "many more people started to play rugby and more clubs were created [today there are almost 600]. There was a really major expansion of rugby in Argentina," he adds. 

In the wake of this growth, the UAR has launched an unprecedented high performance programme.

Momentum was reinforced by Argentina’s entry into the Rugby Championship in 2012 alongside the All Blacks, the Wallabies and the Springboks. The ex-Jaguars followed in their tracks in Super Rugby, accompanied by the good results of Los Pumas 7, bronze medallists at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics in 2021 and frequent winners on the circuit over the past couple of years.

But the advance towards professionalism worries local clubs, the reservoir of amateur rugby.

Chronic economic downturn (annual inflation is running at 124 percent per annum) has triggered a growing exodus of young players to Europe, not only to major leagues like the French but also to minor leagues like Italy, Spain or Portugal.

"There is a whole culture of rugby being played for money. Today’s players, unlike 15 or 20 years ago, want to earn money playing rugby," highlights Busico.

 

Self-criticism

Rugby is simultaneously undergoing a cultural transformation. 

Over the last 20 years a more social and inclusive side has arisen with clubs in low-income neighbourhoods, such as the pioneering Virreyes RC (2003) and Latin America’s first LGBT+ club, Ciervos Pampas (2012), in Buenos Aires City. 

Women are increasingly joining clubs "with a stronger working-class component than their masculine counterparts" and even indigenous communities, notes Fuentes.

But the sport’s reputation dies hard. 

In 2020, a story about some racist tweets posted eight years back, when many of the current Pumas were still in their teens, earned Pablo Matera a media storm with the obligation of a public apology and the loss of his captaincy.

Earlier this year a high-profile trial of six young rugby-players from a minor club in Zárate, Buenos Aires Province, who bashed a youth to death outside a nightclub in the summer of 2020, revived the debate over the DNA of this sport, branded by many as "violent," "machista," "racist" and reserved for the rich.

"We’ve been very strongly self-critical and hopefully such an ugly and painful event has at least served for us to realise," affirmed Pichot, speaking at that time with no holds barred about the tragedy and the excesses of rugby where violence has been made natural.

Busico highlighted that while rugby "long belonged to an elite class, this is no longer the case ... but yet it has not ceased to be a sport played by a certain class," thus affirming its difference from other sports and the rest of society. 

For that reason, an episode like the crime of the six rugby-players deserves even greater condemnation in his estimation. 

Should the Pumas notch up that historic performance which is within their reach at the ongoing World Cup in France, this could help rugby to make amends and help the sport to grow.

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by Philippe Bernes-Lasserre, AFP

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