Looking back on Juan Martín Hernández’s great career, it was no coincidence that he was involved in some of Argentina’s biggest wins over the last 20 years.
A quick list would include the first Puma win against England at Twickenham in 2006, two wins against France, a perfect performance against Ireland in Rugby World Cup 2007, the first Argentine win in the Rugby Championship against Australia in 2014, Los Pumas' maiden victory against South Africa in Durban in 2015, and confirmation of his stature in the game with the win against Ireland in Cardiff during Rugby World Cup 2015.
Referred to as “Le Magicien” by French media after long stints playing in Paris’ two clubs – Stade Français and Racing Metro – and Toulon, the former international has now been retired for two full years.
Torn between his love for two football codes, Hernández chose his father’s game and not that of his uncle Patricio, who played for Argentina with a certain Diego Maradona. His older sister Maripi is a double Olympic medallist in field hockey.
Many years later, as he was kicking his third drop goal at the Parc des Princes to send Ireland home, the Argentine fans began chanting “Maradona” in appreciation of Hernández’s many skills. Few get that honour in soccer-mad Argentina.
“France 2007 was incredible,” he recalls with an understatement that is a perfect reflection of his quiet, humble personality. “Beating France at home was a start, but the team had been growing steadily in the previous four years."
Playing at ten
Having made his international debut four years earlier, Hernández had been used mostly at full-back at test level. For his second Rugby World Cup, he was at his preferred position of No.10, dominating in a run that led to Los Pumas finishing the tournament in third place. Argentina forced its way to the top echelon for years to come.
Before that, there had been wins against France – in Argentina and France – and the England win in 2006, “at my favourite ground: Twickenham,” Hernández tells World Rugby, from lockdown in Buenos Aires. “It came at the right time for us as a team”.
The magic with which he played the game was – and still is – hard to find. Kicking off both feet – out of hand and drop goals – long and flat passes, vision, tackles. All the boxes ticked by a player regarded as one of the best in his generation.
Having won the French Top 14 twice with Stade Français, Hernández pursued his dream of playing Super Rugby. But an injury received during the 2009 Currie Cup would cost him his third Rugby World Cup.
He was back for the inaugural Rugby Championship in 2012. “To be again in the team after three seasons was important for me, as was this new tournament against the best in the world. It was history in the making.”
It would take Argentina until the last game of the third Rugby Championship to win their first game, against Australia in Mendoza.
“After so many losses it was great to finally win. I played inside centre with my friend Horacio Agulla outside of me. Great memories.”
One of the nicest guys the game has produced, he is reluctant to speak about his many accolades and successes. Instead, Hernández prefers to refer to moments that stick to his mind.
“That win in Durban in 2015 was great; the fact that we had spent much of the week with the 1965 Pumas that had started a road of growth for the game and were celebrating 50 years of that first tour was incredible.
“Seeing their banter, hearing their experiences and seeing how happy they were to be there will forever stick in my mind.”
Celebrations in the changing room after the first-ever Puma win against the Springboks have become a permanent fixture in Argentina’s sporting folklore. In 2057 – 50 years on from Rugby World Cup 2007 – perhaps a reunion to mark the occasion? He laughs at the idea.
After retiring in 2018 due to injury, Hernández is now an entrepreneur focused on technology and app development. He had fulfilled his dreams as a player and was happy to call it quits.
“I can still play with my kids, golf two or three times a week (his handicap is 25 but getting better) and it doesn’t hurt. It was a great time to call it quits,” he said, a couple of months before turning 38.
A key cog in some of the biggest Argentine wins in the past two decades, his last big game was in RWC 2015, beating Ireland in an unforgettable quarter-final.
“It was the pleasure of being back in a semi-final, after so much work, both individually and as a team. It was playing a great game. It felt very good.”
Ever the team player, when revisiting his career Hernández is unconvinced by his own role in taking Argentina to new heights.
He closes by saying: “I was lucky to be in many of Argentine rugby's biggest moments of the past few years. I enjoyed myself but most important is that I shared it with so many friends.”