It’s been eight years since he terrorised Eddie O’Sullivan’s crew at a World Cup, and three since he last faced Sunday’s World Cup quarter-final opponents, but the passage of time hasn’t dimmed Juan Martin Hernandez’s appreciation for Argentina’s epic rivalry with Ireland.
“It was a good day for us,” he said last night of Paris in 2007 when the Pumas consigned Ireland to an early exit and claimed top spot in Pool D, “but I also remember 2003 when I was on the bench and we lost by one point. I remember in ’99 as well, when we went to the quarter-finals for the first time.
“I was not part of the Argentina team then, I was very young, but I remember watching it on TV. These games are like, how do you say, classics, a derby. A little bit. I know Ireland has European teams, but for us it became a nice challenge. A good derby.” Lens, Adelaide, Paris. And now Cardiff.
For 16 years these two sides have clawed at and over each other on the scramble towards the Test game’s summit and the portents for this weekend’s high-stakes chapter at a heaving Millennium Stadium don’t lend themselves towards disappointment.
That win in 2007 was merely one in a chain that strengthened like never before the Pumas’ place in their country’s affections. Their semi-final appearance was an adrenaline shot in the arm for the game and it finally prodded the authorities into action.
After years spent marooned in the international wilderness, the governing body now known as World Rugby set in motion the process by which they would join New Zealand, Australia and S Africa in an expanded Tri-Nations.
Their competitiveness in the new Rugby Championship has, in turn, led to the establishment of an Argentinian Super Rugby franchise which will make its debut in 2016 and for which Hernandez is their billboard signing. And it all started in 2007. For the players, it was a time to savour.
Results on the pitch were facilitated by a club-like atmosphere fostered by the fact approximately 80% of them were playing their club rugby in France. It was a happy coincidence and one that allowed them to share the journey with their families and friends.
By then, the relationship with the Irish was already fraught and Hernandez admitted yesterday he had little love for Ronan O’Gara, with whom he would subsequently cross paths when the Irishman pitched up at Racing Metro as an assistant coach.
“It’s a very good relationship (now), an awesome relationship. Before, when I used to play against him, you don’t hate anyone in rugby, but he was someone you wouldn’t like! But I was lucky enough to have him coach me for one year at Racing and I discovered a good person.
“All of us know what a great player he was, but I know him better now and I have a great relationship with him. I’ve asked him if he’s coming to the game (on Sunday) and he said maybe. They have a difficult game, against Oyonnax I think, and he’s not sure.”
What a star Hernandez was when they were facing off.
In an Argentina side dominated by grunts, he was the movie-star matinee idol in the back line and he played like a dream in that World Cup at out-half. The Maradona of Argentina rugby, they called him ‘The Magician’ and that felt about right.
He is 33 now and an inside-centre, but the skillset remains. “It’s very easy,” said Puma scrum-half Martin Landajo when asked what it is to play alongside ‘El Mago’. “Very easy. I just give him the ball. Easy. You don’t like him, no? Because of 2007?” Not true.
It is impossible to dislike a player of his class. Even better is that he now operates in a system designed to maximise his capabilities. This Argentina still carries a punch up front, but it has allied those traditional strengths with a panache out back.
Hernandez, naturally, approves and points out it can only be good for the game in Argentina if children are turning on their TV and looking on at a national side displaying the élan with which their footballers have long been associated.
“I’ve been in this team for a while and we never played like this before, with this style. There’s not much volume before, just pressure, tackling and kicking, occupation. Nowadays we love to keep the ball in hands, running with the ball instead of kicking.
“So that’s very good for us, very good for Argentinian rugby. It’s not only kicking when the kids watch on TV, they see us run and enjoy. It’s an image we want to give … It’s all about enjoying it and as long as I’m in the team, the 15 or the group, I’m happy.”
Come February, those kids and their parents will have the opportunity to watch professional club rugby played in their country for the first time with the as-yet-to-be-named Super Rugby side for which Hernandez will feature due to enter the Super Rugby series.
Progress. Real progress. In 2007, the fruits of their labour were largely left to rot domestically. With no professional league and the Pumas without a regular run of fixtures against tier one nations, there was no means to capitalise on the breakthrough. All of which heightens the stakes this Sunday.
“It will be a dream come true (to play for an Argentinian club) because a lot of players when we left the country it was to play the best rugby we can and to be a part of the national team,” he explained. “So in my head I went from second division where the level is not very good.
“In my head, I thought if I go overseas to play rugby I would have a better opportunity to play for Argentina. So, now I have no excuses and that is why I am going back.
“We will have a very good team and it will be a good competition for our senior rugby.” And they for it. None more so than Hernandez.
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