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Rugby Championship
Unleashing the passion of the Pumas
Frankie Deges in Mendoza
August 26, 2012
Argentina's Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe leads out his side, Argentina v South Africa, Rugby Championship, Mendoza, Argentina, August 25, 2012
Juan Fernandez Lobbe led out the Pumas in Mendoza © PA Photos
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With the snowed top of the Andes overlooking the Malvinas Argentinas Stadium, one of the prettiest stadiums in the region, the Argentine Pumas stunned the world with a 16-16 draw in only the second game of the inaugural Rugby Championship.

From day one of the lengthy and very hard preparation, Puma coaches and players spoke about the goals for the Rugby Championship not being based on wins or losses but on performing adequately and "being able to look at each other at the end of the tournament and know that we have been through this experience together and gave our all," as Juan Fernandez Lobbe, the inspiring Puma captain, said.

For so long Los Pumas have represented the epitome of passion, commitment and love for the country. Who doesn't remember the way they sing the national anthem Oid Mortales? They taught a huge nationalistic lesson to the country.

Their defensive screen is always dependant on fearless players. This was the case in Mendoza where their tackling won them the day. It didn't win the match, drawn of course, but continued to enhance that love affair with the fans and sent a strong message to the world.

Many might instantly recall that Itay opened the Six Nations with a win against Scotland and then went winless for ages. This could well happen to Argentina, although a draw against the Springboks - the first time they didn't lose against South Africa - much bigger than that. And the future will look after itself.

Argentina only arrived in Mendoza on Thursday - something that will need to be addressed for next year as they were missed in the build-up in Mendoza. At the airport, more than 500 children greeted them and it took a good half hour to go from the arrivals lounge to their waiting bus, 50 metres away.

The Springboks had arrived on Monday and their first training session - wherever they are, their Monday session is open to the public- was attended by more than 1,000 fans. They won the PR battle from day one.

 
Many Chileans and Uruguayans assure Los Pumas are a team that not only represents Argentina: the whole region is behind them.
 

As never before, the Rugby Championship brought a number of related events that make the game only a part of the experience. Departing South African Ambassador Tony Leon hosted a cocktail for former Springbok captain Joost van der Westhuizen, to raise awareness for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a condition he made public in May 2011. The following day, Van der Westhuizen presented the Springbok jerseys to the team. It was great to hear Jean de Villiers say that "his condition puts into perspective what we as professional sportsmen do every Saturday. His battle is every second of his life".

With a 4.10pm kick-off, the bars in the Villanueva Aristides Avenue start filling up early. "Argentinos" are very vocal in supporting their team but still too shy to wear the colours. It is part of the process that will soon occur. They walk in groups and when they bump into friends, the love that goes into those hugs shows the passion that is under their skin. They will regroup at the end of the game and the beer will flow but not before because thanks to the naughty soccer fans, alcohol consumption is prohibited within stadiums.

But they don't need to be loaded to enjoy the game. They are connoisseurs and are normally loud. The tension of the game doesn't really turn into the vocal support that is almost the norm in Argentina, a place that is intimidating to visiting sides.

Strangely, the stadium is not full. Some five thousand seats have not been sold. When the All Blacks play in La Plata it will be at a sell-out stadium. The Wallabies will certainly be a sell-out after the draw. No-one wants to miss history in the making.

Argentina's Juan Figallo takes the hit, Argentina v South Africa, Rugby Championship, Mendoza, Argentina, August 25, 2012
The Pumas were worthy of their draw with the Springboks © PA Photos
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Nothing of this really matters to the 37,000 fans that begin their return into town from the Parque San Martin, where the stadium is located. Despite the fresh evening, the way their Pumas - yes, Argentine fans take full ownership of the team - performed allows them to walk with the warmth of pride. Fans arrived from many corners of this huge country and those who who had driven up to 12 hours to be here for the first home Rugby Championship game were repaid with a draw.

Springbok fans travel both in green and in numbers. They are not alone. Many Chileans and Uruguayans assure Los Pumas are a team that not only represents Argentina: the whole region is behind them. When the All Blacks and Wallabies play in Argentina in a month, Brazilians and Uruguays will travel in similar numbers as the Chileans. When it comes to rugby and Los Pumas, there are no frontiers. They all mix and mingle in a city that for the weekend has been breathing rugby.

The game in Argentina is healthy. The playing numbers are growing and the fan base is certainly also on the rise. Now Los Pumas have broken the Rugby Championship duck in only the second round. Hey, the Aussies have 0 points! Next Saturday, clubs all over Argentina will be welcoming new children willing to play the game. That is what Los Pumas generate. That is what the Rugby Championship will give to Argentine rugby.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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