9 July, 1816, the day that in the city of Tucumán, Argentina’s independence was sealed. It's a historic day for South American rugby's regional leader in a city that many years later would become a hotbed for the sport.
Independence Day is one of the big festivities on the Argentine calendar, and on this day this the nation's rugby community is also celebrating a relatively little-known centenary.
Rugby sevens was born in the Scottish Borders in 1883, and despite its local growth and popularity south of the border in England, it hadn’t left Great Britain until that cold July day in the city of Buenos Aires.
That Saturday, local rugby teams got together in the venue that the Buenos Aires Football Club and the Buenos Aires Cricket Club shared in the city’s leafy Palermo Park. The place was so good that years later, after being evicted, the much-visited local Planetarium was built in the same site.
Sharing venue and members, both clubs would eventually join to become today’s Buenos Aires Cricket & Rugby Club in the early 1950s. But long before that, they were responsible for the introduction and development in Argentina of many of today’s sports, including football and rugby.
Laying the foundations
After the end of the First World War, to which both clubs had contributed soldiers, sports took time to regroup. With many members that had been to Europe either as soldiers or to study in England and Scotland, BAFC decided to organise their first sevens tournament.
After a dummy run on 3 July for club members, six teams played sevens until the smell of the “asado” (barbecue) made everyone forget about rugby.
Six days later, “the Buenos Aires Football Club repeated the invitation, this time open to other clubs who answered by having eight clubs to play in the first seven-a-side championship in the country,” reads a book published by the BACRC, on the occasion of its 150th anniversary in 2014, documenting the opening of the premises where that first sevens tournament was held.
Play started at 1.30pm with Huemac, Belgrano Athletic A, Belgrano B, GEBA A, GEBA B, Deportiva Francesa and two representatives from the home club.
In the final, as both teams took the field, the larger than expected crowd erupted and Buenos Aires managed to beat Belgrano by a tight match, 11-10. Buenos Aires FC lined up with Francis Macadam, Govan, Coulson, Gilderdale, Alfred Macadam, Hughes and Marks.
Not imagining what the future could hold for sevens rugby, The Standard correspondent wrote: “This game, from an entertainment point of view, isn’t as interesting as the rules of 15-a-side, yet ability, speed and stamina are key for any side that expects to have any sort of success. The fastest player was, beyond any doubts, Govan, whose powers to withstand the requirements for the game seem to be abnormal,” said the English-written local newspaper.
A sporting celebration for the community
The event had been successful and 9 July became the date over the following years for the annual rugby sevens tournament at BAFC. But with a catch.
The home club was well known for its good spirit both on and off the field, and throughout the following 16 years, the sevens tournament went ahead but with no champion recorded.
“Truth is, the game is not that important, only an excuse for a meeting of friends around an asado that often has colourful and unsuspecting endings for the unprepared,” was Hugo MacKern’s, the doyen of rugby journalism in Argentina, better known as Free Lance, description of BAFC’s Sevens.
This meant that at the time the final was being played, a big bell was heard to let everyone know that the asado was ready. Spectators would invade the field and the fun would begin.
By 1937, the shortened version of the game came under the umbrella of the national union.
“We would have loved to have a proper celebration for the centenary, but unfortunately we are in the middle of a pandemic and very limited when it comes to massive celebrations,” current Buenos Aires Cricket & Rugby Club President, Pablo Traini, told World Rugby.
“We take our club’s proud history with huge responsibility, going back to the first news of the Buenos Aires Cricket Club in 1831, and the date we use as our first confirmed date of when we inaugurated our first premises, on 8 December, 1864, when that first sevens tournament was played.”
Santiago Gómez Cora, one of Argentina’s best-known rugby sevens personalities, was unaware of this centenary.
“What a pity that my club did not play. What could have happened?” asks the former speedster from the Lomas Athletic Club.
“In Los Pumas Sevens, we work to ensure players know their rugby history and at our home base we have a big board with the names of more than 200 players that represented Argentina since the start of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series,” the Pumas sevens coach told World Rugby.
Gómez Cora is himself interested in history, and admits that he talks about it with his national team-mates, who are at the moment preparing to compete in the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
“Sevens is big thanks to the World Series but got even bigger by being in the Olympic Games. Today, kids want to play sevens and in the sevens universe you have those who want to compete and those who want to have fun, as in those early days.
“If you love it and have fun you can always try to go into high performance.”
Regardless of where to play, Gómez Cora concludes: “It all starts at the club”.
Photo: Buenos Aires Cricket and Rugby Club's 150th Year Book