SYDNEY, Nov 15 (Reuters) - Argentina’s victory over New Zealand might have stunned the rugby world but the coach and captain of the Pumas said they went into Saturday’s contest confident that their newly forged team culture was about to pay a rich dividend.
An early indication that something special was brewing at the Western Sydney Stadium came in the fourth minute of the 25-15 victory, Argentina’s first over New Zealand.
Pablo Matera was summoned to referee Angus Gardner when All Black Shannon Frizell slapped an Argentina forward around the head, triggering some push and shove with the Pumas captain at the heart of the fracas.
“I can’t see a guy hit in the face of one of my men,” Matera told the official, standing his ground.
“It’s not respect, I’m playing for my country.”
Flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez kicked the ensuing penalty from 48 metres to give Argentina the lead and Matera and his team mates rarely took a backward step for the rest of the contest.
It has been the toughest of years for Argentina with the COVID-19 virus keeping most of the Pumas off the rugby pitch until Saturday, infecting several of them and forcing them to undergo strict quarantine on arrival in Australia.
Coach Mario Ledesma, one of those who contracted the virus, did his best not to waste the downtime, however, and the fruits of that work were on full display on Saturday evening.
“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,” Ledesma explained.
“They were really disciplined around what they were trying to do because they really believed in what they were doing.”
It was a stark contrast to last year’s World Cup campaign, where the Pumas slunk out in the pool stage with Ledesma complaining of a divide between the Argentina and European based players.
The outpouring of emotion at the end of the match was triggered not only by having beaten one of the great rugby nations for the first time.
Matera spoke movingly on the pitch of the team playing for the people of Argentina, where the economy is in the third year of recession and thousands of COVID-19 cases are still being reported every day.
“It comes down to energy and commitment and playing for the most beautiful jersey in the world,” added Ledesma. (Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by Stephen Coates)
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