Settling scores no longer on the agenda but World Cup seedings the issue in a high-stakes encounter
FROM THE BLINDSIDE: Hopefully the acrimonious history between the teams can be forgotten and we can turn a new page, writes ALAN QUINLAN
Like everything else with Ireland and Argentina, the bad blood started in Lens in 1999. I don’t mean that there was anything niggly or dirty about that night – Ireland were beaten fair and square and Argentina totally deserved their win – but everything that happened in the years that followed came about because of it. I’ve never been in a dressingroom where there was such shock and grief as on that night and I know every Ireland player who was there kept it with them for years afterwards. We had to get revenge the next time we met them. And it just escalated from there.
I always felt as well that for Argentina, that win against us in 1999 opened the door for them. Being able to beat a Northern Hemisphere side in the World Cup meant they were now a serious force. It didn’t matter to them that our preparation for the game wasn’t up to scratch (the food in our hotel was so bad even the team doctor was encouraging us to go next door to McDonald’s just to get some decent nutrition), what mattered was that now they had a target among the main rugby-playing countries that they could aim at. They felt they could beat us and so when we met again in the 2003 tournament, they didn’t take kindly to being on the wrong end of the result.
I played against them three times down the years and I would have been involved in squads against them on a few other occasions as well. And the thing is, I always got on well with them. People would have been looking in from the outside and hearing there was some bad blood between the two countries and they were probably assuming that I was at the heart of it. But actually, any bits of verbals that ever went on took place without me. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have got involved if I’d been there but the truth is I never had the chance.
In that 2003 game in Adelaide for example, I was gone after 20 minutes, away to hospital with a dislocated shoulder. It was only later I found out from the rest of the lads that there had been all sorts of shenanigans out on the pitch. They had gouged Keith Wood and Reggie Corrigan – their two props got suspensions after it – and there was plenty of stamping and off the ball stuff that didn’t come out at the time. They were dirty, no two ways about it.
At the heart of it, they were bad losers. Part of their game plan involved roughing up the Irish because they thought we couldn’t handle it. And then when the IRFU made complaints about their players afterwards and got them suspended, they thought we were whiners who couldn’t take it. But the truth was they couldn’t take their beating. We had lost to them once before and they maybe thought that’s how it was going to be from then on. So they kicked and stamped and gouged thinking they could dominate us.
The stupid thing about it was that they obviously had great players and if they had concentrated on playing rugby and leaving the dirty stuff to one side, they could have improved a lot quicker. Everybody could see they were a coming team with a couple of world-class players and they played some great stuff against other countries. But just when it came to us, it seemed like they felt they were more interested in settling scores.
I think the worst of it was the 2004 game in Lansdowne Road. Argentina came to Dublin clearly annoyed at what they felt was whining from the Ireland team the previous year. They were out for revenge and it felt as if the result of the game wasn’t as important to them as leaving a mark on as many of the Ireland players as they could. They were gouging and stamping all over the place and it got fairly dangerous at times. As well as that, they never shut up and were full of verbals from start to finish.
We won it with a last-minute drop goal from Ronan O’Gara, who proceeded to rub it in by jumping in the air and clicking his heels beside Mario Ledesma. Rog had taken dog’s abuse all the way through the game – both verbally and physically – and he knew well what he was doing and who he was doing it to. It was like a red rag to a bull for them.
Even so, I was still a bit surprised at how cold and distant they were at the function that night. It’s one of the things I really love about rugby – you can hammer the shite out of each other on the pitch but still buy each other a beer afterwards. But they just didn’t want anything to do with us that night. There was a lot of tension in the room. They sat by themselves over in one corner and left us to sit in ours.
There was nearly a coming together as the night wore on though. I was sitting having a drink with Paul O’Connell when word came down that a few of them were giving Rog a hard time up at the bar. It was Ledesma leading the charge and I’ve no doubt Rog was probably giving it back. One way or another, we were on our feet and nearly had the jackets off us ready to go and get involved. It all calmed down pretty quickly in the end but for a minute it looked like things could have got out of hand.
The bitterness between the two sides got stoked up with the provinces as well over the years. There was always that bit of chippiness between Felipe Contepomi and the Munster players – mostly Rog and Denis Leamy it has to be said. Again, plenty of people assumed I was in the middle of it but it’s not true. Felipe and I actually got on pretty well together, maybe because we were both players that the supporters of the other team didn’t like.
Chip on his shoulder
He’s a brilliant rugby player and he plays with a chip on his shoulder. When I used to hear Munster supporters give out about him, all I could think of was that if he was wearing a red jersey they would love him to bits. Every team has those players – you hate them if they’re playing against you but you’ll defend them to the death if they’re playing for you.
Contepomi was a classic Argentinian player. He was fiery and competitive to the last and when he concentrated on playing rugby he was one of the best players in the game. But every once in a while, he got distracted and got too involved with mouthing at the opposition and lost the plot a bit.
There was probably no chance of the Ireland-Argentina thing settling down while he was playing with Leinster because himself and a few of the Munster players were chipping away at each other twice or three times a season.
On top of that, we met Castres a few times with Ledesma playing for them and we never had the most pleasant relationship with them either. What happens then is players go back and join up with their national side and just naturally chat about different players from different countries. All of a sudden, guys who weren’t involved one way or another have decided they have a beef with you.
By the time the 2007 World Cup came around, the whole thing had escalated. The papers were full of O’Gara-Contepomi stories because it had only been 18 months since the Heineken Cup semi-final.
But that wasn’t the problem for Ireland – the problem was Argentina had a really good side who were on a roll and having an exceptional World Cup. They beat us well that night in Paris and Felipe couldn’t resist patting Rog on the head at the end. Just rubbing it in. They’d been bad losers in 2003 and they weren’t great winners this time around.
I’d say it’s mostly all gone now. Most of us are retired and a lot of the faces have changed. This game on Saturday exists all by itself. Argentina are long past the stage of needing a Northern Hemisphere target to aim at and Ireland have won the last two games between the countries so there’s nothing like Lens to avenge. It’s a massive game with the seedings for the World Cup draw up for grabs but that’s what everyone will be concentrating on, not settling scores or sorting out bitterness. That’s the way it should be anyway.