Teams are created out of the belief that they generate energy and togetherness that make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
Diego Albanese, Argentina’s try-scoring hero in the now defunct quarter-final play-off stages at Rugby World Cup 1999, is a subscriber to that theory.
Reluctant to claim the credit for Los Pumas’ dramatic 28-24 victory over Ireland in Lens, a game which will be live streamed in full this Saturday, Albanese points to the collective effort needed to keep the Irish at bay in an excruciatingly tense final eight minutes.
Ireland hammered away at the Argentina line time and time again, with a 13-man maul on more than one occasion, but the sky blue line did not crack.
“That try is important because we ended up winning but if we hadn’t have defended the way we did, in those last eight minutes, they’d have scored, and we’d have lost,” he points out when speaking to World Rugby from his home in Buenos Aires.
“Anyway, any wing, with two hands, in any team, could have caught that brilliant pass from Gonzalo Camardon, and run 15 metres, that’s the way I remember it.
“I was there, at the right time and in the right place, and it was my moment, but it is a team try.
“Gonzalo (Quesada) still had to convert that try. People still talk about the try, and I say it is a great memory, but it’s a great memory shared as a whole team.”
Quesada’s touchline conversion put Argentina 25-24 up, after they had trailed by 12 points early in the second half, and the fly-half went on to slot a seventh penalty as Los Pumas celebrated a famous win and a place in the quarter-finals for the first time in history.
The resolve that Argentina showed that day stemmed from the most disruptive of build-ups to the tournament.
That summer, Joe Louis Imhoff, the father of Los Pumas star Juan Imhoff, left his position as coach, leaving Hector Mendez in charge. But Mendez resigned only a matter of weeks into the role over a dispute surrounding the role of consultant Alex ‘Grizzly’ Wyllie.
It turned out to be a wily appointment in every sense of the word, reveals Albanese.
“Less than a fortnight before the World Cup we didn’t have a coach, he was gone because of politics, and Alex Wyllie, the Kiwi, who was giving us a hand, ended up as our head coach for that World Cup.
“I remember the captain Lisandro Arbizu, our centre, saying in the dressing room in Argentina before we flew out, ‘that’s it, we are on our own, we either stick together and stay alive or the ship goes down’. That made us tougher and united as a team, and obviously it ended well.”
Argentina had only won one game in the three previous Rugby World Cups, against Italy way back in 1987, and few would have predicted a team largely made up of amateurs would perform so well.
Plenty of encouragement was taken from a 23-18 defeat to Wales at the Millennium Stadium in their opening game before the 12-year wait for a win came to an end following a stirring fightback against Samoa.
“We were losing 16-3 at half-time and I remember Alex Wyllie came into the changing room. He said if we didn’t turn it around, we’d be on our way home. It was one of the turning points of that World Cup,” admits Albanese.
“That second half was incredible. Quesada kicked goals from everywhere, and the forwards were awesome. We cut out the errors from the first half and took control. I think we scored 29 unanswered points.”
“Cherry on the cake”
Argentina returned to Cardiff and Albanese scored in a 33-12 victory against Japan that confirmed their presence in the play-offs, and a date with Ireland in northern France.
“For us, going to Lens, to play Ireland, was the cherry on the cake. We didn’t have too much pressure on us, it was all on the Irish.”
A kicking duel between David Humphreys and opposite number Quesada was going the way of the Irish until Albanese struck in the 72nd minute.
But, again, Albanese says the credit lays elsewhere, citing the leadership of Arbizu and the visionary qualities of Felipe Contepomi, who’d come off the bench to win his ninth cap.
“There were penalties everywhere, it wasn’t that good spectacle,” he recalls. “Ireland were a little bit more clinical in the first half, and their experience showed.
“We were losing 15-9 and the captain said, ‘boys, we have to start playing, we have nothing to lose, let’s start to enjoy it’.
“In the second half, we played much better than them.
“Immediately before the try, we tapped a penalty kick inside our own 22 and kept playing and playing until we got the scrum deep inside their 22.”
Call of duty
From there, Argentina went against type, and instead of keeping the ball in the forwards, moved it wide.
“Normally in that situation, it would have stayed in the scrum. If you’d have asked me what chance there was of the ball coming out, I’d have said four or five per cent,” says Albanese, a respected rugby pundit with ESPN.
“But I remember Felipe Contepomi saying, ‘boys, if the ball comes out, let’s do this move’. On this occasion, the scrum wasn’t good, and we went backwards. Suddenly the ball was out, and because Felipe announced we were going to do that move, we did it.
“Around that time, people started to talk about running lines, decoy runners and things like that, and that’s what we did. The move is quite simple. Any defence today would find it easy to defend. But then, it worked for us.”
Defending was anything but simple in the quarter-final against France, a riotous game of seven tries that saw Les Bleus overcome a jaded Argentina, 47-26.
But Argentina still couldn’t hide their happiness from the Ireland result.
“After Lens, the winners went back in Dublin for the quarter-finals. The hotel we were staying at was the same one Ireland had been using up until that point, and they had left all their kit and luggage there.
“For them, it was a matter of going to France to beat us and then coming home to play in the quarter-finals. One day we were sitting in the lobby and the Irish kit man came to collect all their stuff. That was a funny moment. The way it was at that time, Argentina maybe wasn’t as respected as they are now.”
Reflecting on what the Ireland victory did for Argentinian rugby, Albanese says it was a game-changer.
“That World Cup was so important for Argentinian rugby. Beating Ireland is a great memory for us.
“When we went home, people were talking about rugby. It was a moment where loads of kids and people in general started to know much more about the sport, and the game grew in those years.
“Only three of the squad were professionals before the tournament but after it, half the squad were.
“I went to France to play for Grenoble. Corleto, Contepomi, Fernández Lobbe, Ledesma … all those players went too.
“From that moment on, we started to be more competitive because we were playing against world-class players week in, week out.”