“Our best resources are the passion and pride when we put on the jersey” – Agustin Pichot (Courtesy of – Getty Images)

It was full time at Estadio Malvinas in Mendoza as the Pumas celebrated their first ever win at the Rugby Championship.

The 21-17 triumph over Australia amidst the vibrant local chants resonated a long awaited moment to relish. After having the RWC as the only major competition in their calendar, a spot in the premier southern hemispheric tournament was richly deserved. Moreover, it was years of relentless battering to prove themselves as a dominant powerhouse of the oval ball.

Perhaps, it all started in 2007when a passionate and resolute outfit decided to take the stage by storm and place their name on the map. At helm was scrumhalf Agustin Pichot, the little mastermind who led the fifteen to the battle.

By no means was it hunky dory as the highest stage demanded the lion hearted Pumas to face the toughest challenges. Entering the tournament, skipper Pichot was given the arduous task of not only leading his men and creating the vital link between the staunch forwards and the talented backs but also providing inspiration they needed on the field.

It was the 33-yer old veteran’s ultimate test to reach the pinnacle after serving the ‘sky blue and white’ jersey for 12 years.

(Courtesy of – Getty Images)
(Courtesy of – Getty Images)

Born in Buenos Aires on 22nd August 1974, the 5’ 10” compact athlete made his debut for Argentina in 1996 during their tour to Australia. He scored his first international try at Brisbane while later in the same year he was capped against Romania, Italy and France. In the following two years, he played 13 times and as a result of his performance, Pichot was selected to play in the 1999 RWC. Alongside teammates such as Gonzalo Quesada, the youngster helped Argentina to reach the quarterfinals for the first time in their history before losing to France.

Pichot captained the Pumas for the first time in 2000 against Ireland, a match which Argentina won 34-23. Meanwhile his domestic career too took a turn by a move from his old club Bristol to Paris in 2003. His 4 years at Bristol earned him 65 caps where he scored 48 points. The 2003 World Cup campaign was a heartbreak as Argentina failed to reach the knockouts following a loss to Ireland by a mere point.

However, the team was stemming in belief under Pichot’s captaincy and victories against England and Wales in 2006 boosted their confidence en route to France 2007.

The dark horses from the land of South America possessed a lineup blended by strong-willed forwards Rodrigo Roncero, Mario Ledesma, Patricio Albacete, Juan Manuel Leguizamon and the Lobbe brothers to name a few. With the skipper himself at scrumhalf, the fast paced and gifted backs consisted of flyhalf Juan Martin Hernandez, the Contepomi twins (Felipe and Manuel) at Centre, Borges-Agulla collaboration at wing and speed star Ignacio Corleto at fullback.

“The most important skill is to be able to organise yourself and the rest of your team” - Agustin Pichot (Courtesy of – AP)
“The most important skill is to be able to organise yourself and the rest of your team” – Agustin Pichot (Courtesy of – AP)

The fairytale run began on 7th September at Paris against hosts France in the opening game of the 2007 RWC. It was the third successive time that Pumas have contested in the opening game of a World Cup and with previous defeats to Wales and Australia in 1999 and 2003; the battalion was determined to turn the tables this time. As the ‘Himno Argentino’ echoed around Stade de France, emotions took over the zealous side as the world watched them gearing up for an inevitable run under the guidance of their leader Pichot. It was his prime duty to maintain the spirits as well as to execute Marcelo Loffreda’s quality game plan.

Felipe Contepomi opened the scoring with a penalty in the 5th minute before David Skrela equalized for France. Being on the front foot, deep inside the French territory offered them two more penalties which Contepomi slotted to take a 9-3 lead midway through the first half. Minutes later, a threatening move by the French Centre Damien Traille saw Remy Martin, whose ultimate pass was cleverly intercepted by Pichot before Contepomi found the hands of Corleto who made a splendid 40m sprint to score the first try of France 2007. Upon missing the conversion, Contepomi scored another penalty to take a 17-9 lead at the half and despite French resistance resulting in a penalty by Skrela, Argentina held on to a historical 17-12 win to quash an error-ridden home side. As 80,000 local fans stood confound, the Pumas had upstaged, forcing France to be the first home side after 1991 to lose an opening RWC game.

(Courtesy of – Getty Images)
                                                               (Courtesy of – Getty Images)

With a jubilant upshot, Argentina crushed Georgia 33-3 in Lyon before trouncing Namibia 63-3 at Marseille a fortnight later. When the Pumas took on the Shamrock in a decisive game at Parc de Princes in Paris, all eyes were on the underdogs but many were backing the Irish to secure a win. After Contepomi missing an opportunity to put Argentina in the lead, it didn’t take them much long to open the scoring through Lucas Borges. Following a penalty by Ronan O’Gara for the Irish, Agustin Pichot shipped a timely pass to Juan Martin Hernandez who unleashed a terrific drop goal to take the lead at 8-3. With the pendulum swinging both ways, Ireland cameback to score a blistering try through skipper Brian O’Driscoll claiming the lead for the first time. The Pumas seemed to be foiled, until Hernandez delivered another delightful drop goal before Horacio Agulla went over the line, leaving the Irish defence in shambles at halfway. A Geordan Murphy try gave momentarily hope reducing the deficit to 21-15 but further Contepomi penalties added points amidst the continuous blaring of the Irish fans. Another apt pass by Pichot emanated Hernandez’s third drop goal, this time with his left foot, sealing their unbeaten tag and entering the knockouts only for the second time in history with a convincing 30-15 win.

(Courtesy of – Reuters)
        (Courtesy of – Reuters)

By now Argentina was on overdrive, appearing on every team’s feared opponent list. And as competition got strenuous, a formidable Scotland side locked horns on 7th October at packed Stade de France. As the team huddled moments before the confrontation, their desire seemed clear, to reach a semifinal for the first time in their history.

Although Dan Parks put Scotland in front, Contepomi responded with two penalties before Gonzalo Longo charged down a Dan Parks kick with a subsequent try. The half time score of 13-6 was challenged by Scotland but the light blue and white defensive wall absorbed wave after wave of Scottish onslaughts before salvaging a taxing 19-13 victory.

As a nation rallied around the Pumas, even the ‘superclassico’ between local football rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate was delayed, revolving the attention to the ongoing fiesta.

Their scintillating run finally ended in a semifinal loss to eventual champions South Africa but the courageous men reaffirmed their supremacy over France yet again during third place play off with an even more resounding 34-10 win, obtaining the bronze medal to conclude one of the most remarkable World Cup stories of all time.

From the sturdy forwards to the nippy back line, it was the devout warriors of 2007 whose startling heroics, initiated a new era in Argentine rugby steering it to greater heights. None could forget the little commander who marshaled the brigade through example, motivation and superior qualities of standing by his troupe for justice, rightful merits and accolades. In 2011 he was inducted to the IRB Hall of Fame, becoming only the second Argentine after Hugo Porta to enter his name.

"It's not about money. It's about self-pride and Argentinian rugby playing in a good competition. It's not about me. I represent Argentinian rugby” – Agustin Pichot (Courtesy of – Getty Images)
“It’s not about money. It’s about self-pride and Argentinian rugby playing in a good competition. It’s not about me. I represent Argentinian rugby” – Agustin Pichot (Courtesy of – Getty Images)

No doubt behind Argentina’s success story stands Agustin Pichot and his valiant efforts which took Pumas rugby to another level. His prodigy had placed them in a position they enjoy today as a fearsome side in the world arena. The feat led to their inclusion in the tri-nations and with Super Rugby expanding to 18 teams from next year, professional rugby will make its journey to the ‘Land of Silver’, a dream seemed too far when the game turned professional in 1995.

Pichot and his profound leadership beguiled a football-crazy nation also to believe in the oval ball and to be recognized as an alarming foe to any proficient side. One of the best scrumhalves ever to grace the game, the maestro will be remembered for what the South American side warrants today, an achievement that sounded far-fetched a decade ago.