Los Pumas counting down to All Blacks test

RICHARD KNOWLER
Last updated 05:00 08/09/2012
Argentina Pumas
Photosport
NEEDING THEIR BEST: Argentina players head off the field after a training session at Hutt Recreation Ground on Thursday.

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As Graham Henry departed Argentina's training on Thursday he hoisted his eyes to the grey sky and quipped: "This might help us a bit on Saturday night."

Given Henry's recent history with the All Blacks, it can be difficult to comprehend him mingling with their Rugby Championship opponents.

However, when taking into account Argentina's struggles to find a niche in international rugby, Henry's arrival in their camp as technical adviser - or whatever he's been doing - is maybe a fitting way to signal they deserve their slot in the big time.

Who better to call on than the bloke who broke the All Blacks' 24-year World Cup drought?

Henry, by all accounts, is happy as a lark when fluttering about inside the Argentinians' rugby world.

The players are keen to learn and he enjoys being flung into such a unique situation. Argentina want to ensure they are taken seriously in the Rugby Championship and their 16-all draw with the Springboks in Mendoza a fortnight ago signals they deserve respect.

It has also been a rugged road to get here and they don't want to mess it up. Neither do the International Rugby Board who have provided substantial funding.

Last year the IRB declared it would fund US$10 million (NZ$12.43m) to support Argentina before Sanzar allowed them into their expanded Tri-Nations competition.

Over four years US$2.5 million a season will be provided if they meet Sanzar's conditions to ensure their top players, most of whom are contracted to northern hemisphere clubs, participate in the competition.

The IRB have accordingly changed their rules around international player availability to ensure Los Pumas players are released from clubs and the Sanzar competition is not devalued.

At last Argentina, who don't have a professional domestic tournament, are involved in a top-tier competition after failing to be accepted into the Six Nations.

Having finished third at the 2007 World Cup and qualifying for the cup quarterfinal against the All Blacks last year, they deserve to be respected.

Although there is still some resistance among the "old school" brigade in the South American country, who still believe the sport should be amateur, the Argentina union has taken giant strides towards developing players.

Since 2010 they have had a semi-professional team, Las Pampas, playing in South Africa's Vodacom Cup - a second-tier competition to the Currie Cup. It is contested by South Africa's Super Rugby development sides and Las Pampas play all matches in the Republic.

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Given the way the Super Rugby competition has expanded from 12 to 15 teams since 1996, it seems probable a team from Argentina may be invited to join when the next broadcasting deal rolls over.

That, however, is for the future. For Argentina and Henry there is tonight's test against the All Blacks to negotiate first.

Wellington's capricious weather may assist Los Pumas by bringing rain but Henry will be the first tell them this is just the start of a long journey.

- The Press

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