Argentina may have been converted to the joys and rewards of running rugby in the last three years, but the nation’s umbilical cord with physical forward play and their devotion to the scrum, in particular, remain embedded in the collective psyche.
Who better than Marcos Ayerza to remind us of that ahead of their World Cup quarter-final against Ireland in Cardiff and one which promises to be, if anything, even more bruising than last week’s meeting with the French at Cardiff.
The Leicester Tigers prop has been a Puma since 2003.
A fluent English speaker, he spoke at length of the famed ‘bajada’, the cult of scrummaging born in the San Isidro club and one embraced by the national team and the game at large in the South American country.
“They were the first ones to do a coordinated push of going low and going forward,” he said of San Isidro. “In the old days, that was a way of attack and that was also taken to the Pumas. Since then it became this bajada. Bajada means to go locked, like low and forward.
“That was the first move of putting us as a name in the world. Since then we have used the scrum a lot. Argentina have always tried to be a force there and we love the scrum. We love to test ourselves and we don’t like to have to be putting the ball in and out for backs to attack.”
Ayerza is no old fogey. He doesn’t pine for the days when 10-man rugby was the ceiling of his country’s ambitions, but he talks intelligently and lovingly about the need to balance the old traditions with the new realities.
“The ‘fatties’ still need to be looked after,” he laughed.
Ireland’s scrum has never been talked of in the same hushed tones, but it is a facet of the Irish game that has improved.
Former forwards coach John Plumtree challenged his players to make the pack a world-class unit and scrum coach Greg Feek has produced a stable and effective unit.
“The Irish scrum has been efficient over the last year,” said Ayerza. “They didn’t really want to dominate. You have to have the tightest platform, an aggressive pack to play. I like to test myself at every scrum and to dominate the scrum if possible.
“Ireland have been very clinical, very good, tidy. Of course they haven’t been dominated, but they haven’t dominated many teams. We’re planning to really take it to them. It’s an area we have respect for. They have an experienced front row and forward pack.
“I’m not sure who will play, but maybe Cian Healy and (Mike) Ross and of course Rory Best. They are very experienced and have played together for many, many games. They know each other and they will be capable of having a solid scrum.
“Having said that we want to have a battle up front.”
He is a fan of Joe Schmidt’s side, in general: The structured game plan, its abilities at the breakdown and the Six Nations successes. Ayerza was there when the rivalry between the teams was at its height and he sees similarities in their approaches.
That is no surprise as his Irish links are clear and declared with pride.
His great, great grandfather was an Irishman named David O’Connor and his own, now departed, grandmother used to beam with pride on those occasions when Marcos lined up against the land of their ancestors. “She loved Ireland,” he said. “Definitely.”
His schooling was done at Newman College, an institution founded by the Irish Christian Brothers and one also attended by Felipe Contepomi, and a horse racing background that started with his grandfather and spawned their own stud and farm has strengthened those links with the old sod.
“There is a big tradition of Irish people in Argentina. Plenty of horses from Coolmore coming over from Argentina for the season over there. So, our links with Ireland are always very good. We have similar ways of thinking, of doing things. But, yeah, horses is a big passion for myself.”
Rugby, too, of course.
One-sixteenth an Irishman, but he remains every inch a Puma.
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