Fresh, fit and focussed: How the Pumas beat the All Blacks

6:33 am on 17 November 2020

By Michael Burgess*

How do you explain the miracle of Bankwest? Argentina were meant to struggle in Saturday's game, with all of their issues coming into the match.

Argentina celebrate after beating the All Blacks. Tri Nations rugby union test match. New Zealand All Blacks v Argentina Pumas. Bankwest Stadium, Sydney, Australia. 14th Nov 2020. Copyright Photo: David Neilson /

Photo: PhotoSport / David Neilson

They are generally the lowest ranked team in the Rugby Championship and most pundits were tipping a comprehensive victory for the All Blacks.

Instead, Argentina made history and the 25-15 score line flattened the Men in Black, who were outplayed in every facet of the game. How did it happen?

1. The unexpected benefit of the Covid-19 chaos

The Covid-19 situation has meant a series of crazy hurdles for the Pumas. They spent months in isolation at home, had to deal with a dozen members of the squad contracting the virus and then an extended quarantine period in Australia, with no official matches before last Saturday's test.

But the Covid chaos also produced one unexpected and important benefit. The re-jigged tournament has created a level playing field in terms of the respective schedules.

For one of the first times since they entered the Rugby Championship in 2012, Argentina don't have to contend with an almost impossible draw, that sees them mentally and physically worn out in the second half of the tournament.

Their usual scenario sees them fly to South Africa for a bruising battle in the first game. The Pumas then return home - across seven time zones - to face the Springboks a week later.

Then the long trip to New Zealand to face the All Blacks, followed by an away game in Australia, sometimes in Perth.

So, by the time they should be peaking, for home matches against New Zealand and Australia, there is nothing left in the tank. They've already crossed the Atlantic and Pacific oceans twice and injuries are usually a factor, given their inferior depth, while the All Blacks are coming off a month based at home.

2020 Investec Tri Nations Rugby. New Zealand All Blacks v Los Pumas of Argentina at Bankwest Stadium, Sydney. Patrick Tuipulotu and Jack Goodhue of the All Blacks  tackle Argentina's Pablo Matera. Photo: Photo: Stuart Walmsley /

Photo: PhotoSport / Stuart Walmsley

That fixed schedule probably made commercial and logistical sense, but it didn't work on a sporting level, in terms of producing the most competitive tournament possible. As the new boys, Argentina couldn't grumble but the disparity in demands was always noted.

History has shown what is possible under better circumstances. Look at last year. With a revamped schedule due to the World Cup, Argentina hosted the All Blacks in the first round, with the 20-16 result New Zealand's narrowest winning margin against the South American team since 2001. There was another close call at the 2015 World Cup (26-16), when both teams had similar build-ups.

And then last Saturday. Despite an unprecedented situation and the absence of some key players, the Pumas were fresh, fit and focussed - and what a difference it made.

2. Awakening the giant?

It might be hard to remember now, but there were genuine misgivings about the Pumas joining the Southern hemisphere's elite competition in 2012. Did they have the depth? Could they handle six intense matches across two months? Or would they end up like Italy in the Six Nations?

"We will pay a price, but the only way is to play, and we will adapt very fast," former Pumas coach Marcelo Loffreda (2000-2007) told this writer in early 2012.

"I don't know if we will be ready but we can't turn down this opportunity."

Then head coach Santiago Phelan called it "the biggest challenge" that Argentinian rugby has ever faced.

"We have a very difficult path ahead of us," he told me. "[But] we have to give our all and see what happens from there."

It wasn't easy, as Argentina recorded only one victory in the first three years and were thumped 73-13 by South Africa in 2013.

But just like younger siblings in backyard battles, they are adept learners and have developed steadily, best shown in 2018 when they managed two victories in a single campaign for the first time. The presence of the Jaguares in Super Rugby since 2016 has also reaped rewards.

Richie Mo'unga in possession. Tri Nations rugby union test match. New Zealand All Blacks v Argentina Pumas. Bankwest Stadium, Sydney, Australia. 14th Nov 2020. Copyright Photo: David Neilson /

Photo: PhotoSport / David Neilson

3. The ultimate underdogs

The Pumas thrive on being the ultimate underdog, when everything seems against them.

On the streets of Buenos Aires they like to talk about 'la garra' which loosely translates as fighting spirit. It exhibits in passion, pride, courage and desire, as Argentina have shown on some famous occasions.

Like the opening game of the 2007 World Cup, when they stunned France in front of 80,000 Tricolor fans in Paris.

Or in 2005, when they took on the British Lions in Cardiff, without 25 of their top players due to injuries and unavailability. Clive Woodward's team were fortunate to get a last-minute draw.

Or the 2011 Rugby World Cup quarter final at Eden Park, when a depleted Argentinean team pushed the hosts to the limit before being overwhelmed in the last quarter.

Or last Saturday, at a suburban Sydney stadium.

4. Less fear of the Fern

There was a time, not so long ago, when the All Blacks were almost mythical beasts for Argentinean players, who rarely faced them.

The two countries met only four times in the 1990s and between 2002 and 2011 just twice.

Former All Blacks coach Alex Wyllie also coached the Pumas for three years (1996-1999), gaining a unique insight.

Wyllie felt the Pumas had plenty of self belief when facing the likes of England and France but it was a different story with the All Blacks and they often gave New Zealand too much respect.

However, since the advent of the Rugby Championship the teams have become regular rivals, with 16 matches since 2012, which has lessened the fear factor when facing the silver fern.

A dejected Sam Cane after they are beaten by the Pumas. Tri Nations rugby union test match. New Zealand All Blacks v Argentina Pumas. Bankwest Stadium, Sydney, Australia. 14th Nov 2020. Copyright Photo: David Neilson /

A dejected Sam Cane after they are beaten by the Pumas. Photo: PhotoSport / David Neilson

5. All Black vulnerability

Saturday's perfect storm of circumstances was compounded by an inescapable vulnerability within the 2020 All Blacks.

Ian Foster is a first-year head coach, who is learning the ropes and appears indecisive with his selections. He also missed, due to the Covid-19 outbreak, the softer introduction of a mid-season series against a touring Northern hemisphere team. Those sides are out of season and usually rusty, which presents a good chance to bank some wins and alleviate pressure.

Sam Cane is a new captain and not the first to struggle early in a reign. Tana Umaga had a difficult time as skipper in 2004 and even the incomparable Richie McCaw took a few years to adjust to the job.

Kieran Read perhaps enjoyed a smoother ascension, but that was after seven years of playing alongside and learning from McCaw.

The absence of lock Brodie Retallick, currently on sabbatical in Japan, has been another significant factor. He provides the grunt in the engine room and though others get more headlines, arguably no player has been more important since the 2015 World Cup.

*Michael Burgess has reported on sport in New Zealand since 2005. He also lived in South America for two years and wrote about rugby, football and tennis in the region.

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