Argentina achieve rugby history, endure scandal, and now face uncertain future

Argentina players celebrate their historic first victory over the All Blacks, which came via a 25-15 triumph at Bankwest Stadium in Sydney Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Argentina won't forget their 2020 tour of Australia anytime soon.

The Pumas' Tri Nations campaign may have come to a disappointing end on Saturday, when the curtain came down on the tournament at Bankwest Stadium, but the 16-all draw against Australia will be merely a footnote of their rollercoaster few months Down Under.

And they can be proud, for the most part, of what they achieved, and their commitment to a tournament that would not have gone ahead without their participation, earning respect across the rugby world.

The fact that they had to move mountains, metaphorically, to get to Australia, was more than enough for content-starved rugby fans to pay homage to the Pumas before the tournament began. But then, when most expected the Pumas to be little more than cannon fodder for both New Zealand and Australia, they set about proving everyone but themselves and those passionate Argentines riding out the pandemic Down Under wrong.

And they did just that.

"From the beginning we said we didn't want to make any excuses for starters, and we didn't; we weren't looking for excuses in any of the games," Pumas coach Mario Ledesma said after Saturday's finale.

"But this week has been hard; all the other stuff, happy days. This week has been really, really tough, especially on some of the boys, it was a really difficult week to prepare. But these guys, they don't stop surprising us, they never put their head down, they never complain, they're not whinging; they're always really positive, they love each other. They demand the same commitment from the next guy that they put in."

The "hard" week Ledesma refers to did, however, take the gloss of their otherwise superb Tri Nations campaign.

The resurfacing of skipper Pablo Matera's "xenophobic" tweets -- which were more than eight years old -- reportedly in reaction to the Pumas' failure to appropriately mark the death of football great Diego Maradona, alongside similar social media postings from Guido Petti and Santiago Socino, thrust the Pumas back into the global rugby spotlight; only this time it was for the wrong reasons.

That they first dumped Matera as skipper and suspended the back-rower alongside both Petti and Socino, before apparently letting the disciplinary process run its course, to the point where Matera will be reinstated as captain and the suspensions lifted, has generated far-reaching debate across the game.

BT Sport commentator and former England winger Ugo Monye was one to criticise the Union Argentina de Rugby's [UAR] handling of the situation, and he also called out World Rugby's failure to usure process and the global governing body's perceived lack of action on stamping out racism across the game.

"Where's World Rugby in all of this? They've not said anything," Monye said.

World Rugby did eventually comment on the situation, saying it was relieved to see the UAR process was still unfolding.

"World Rugby welcomes reports that the Union Argentina de Rugby continues to undertake a full investigation into racist social media comments attributed to members of the senior men's national 15s team," the global governing body said in a statement.

"World Rugby is currently seeking a better understanding of the process being undertaken by the UAR and its status and looks forward to receiving a full update."

Before the UAR revealed the findings and intentions of its judicial process last Thursday, rumours of a possible player strike for the Tri Nations finale circulated; once the 16-all draw had been contested, Ledesma detailed the "sleepless nights" and messages that could have derailed his side's preparations.

"You can ask [Julian Montoya] how much he slept this week, and they were sleeping two or three hours a night," Ledesma said.

"And I kept receiving messages from players at two o'clock in the morning... they were texting each other and calling each other about everything that was going on.

"So sleepless nights and then rescheduling trainings because we still wanted to prepare for this game... but pandemic-style, I guess, just readapting and reinventing yourselves. But they were incredible; they don't cease to amaze me."

Whether the UAR's handling of the racism scandal is enough to satisfy World Rugby remains to be seen, but the union's biggest mistake was in not handling the situation appropriately at the time the trio's tweets were first posted.

And that storyline certainly tarnished what the team achieved in Australia, most notably that famous first win over the All Blacks, a victory that was built on a defensive wall that really was only breached for a short period late in their 38-0 loss to New Zealand in the return match a fortnight ago.

"And it wasn't even defence there; it was lost ball, intercepts and stuff like that," Ledesma said of his side's defensive failings against New Zealand in Newcastle.

"[The defence] has been awesome and, the boys, they've been working through Zooms at the beginning of the year and talking about what they wanted to look like as a team.

"The defence was always one of our standards; it was always something in our DNA. When they wanted to judge themselves on how they were performing they started talking about defence and individual tackles and stuff like that. I think today and throughout the whole competition, we had a world-class defence, definitely."

Just how Ledesma and his reinvigorated Pumas can build on their efforts in Australia appears uncertain.

With the Jaguares gone from Super Rugby, many of Argentina's players have taken up contracts in Europe while Tomas Cubelli, Montoya, Domingo Miotti, Tomas Lezana and Santiago Medrano have all signed with Western Force for the club's Super Rugby AU and trans-Tasman crossover campaigns.

The Pumas will come back together for next year's Rugby Championship that, all things going to plan, will turn to a format in which all four nations again host matches. But nothing, it seems, is guaranteed.

"We have at least 10 guys who have no contract, they're amateurs... most of them didn't play, so they get no money for it. And they were the hardest-working bunch of players that you would see. So some of them are amateurs and some of them their contracts are finishing at the end of the year, but that was never an obstacle not to commit and engage and work hard.

"If you knew half of what was going on... if you knew half of the things to get here, and those guys not earning one peso, it's pretty impressive; it's pretty impressive."

There are clearly plenty of hurdles, and one significant issue, for the UAR to sort if the Pumas are to build on what they achieved on the field over the past few months.

Argentina would perhaps benefit more than any other nation if the Nations Championship were ever to get the green light, but the Pumas look to have the right man at the helm in Ledesma.

For now, though, it's back to the family and some well deserved time off; and a A chance to reflect on the rugby history they have written and just where they want to head, both on and off the field, in the future.

"It's been incredible journey the whole year... they've been preparing for a tough week as we had this week," Ledesma said.

" Adversity was present from March on and when Jaguares were gone, and then economy crisis in Argentina and the federation [UAR].

"And then the only possibility of coming over here was to quarantine in Uruguay and then quarantine over here, and then very few warm-up games, and then getting together with the European [-based players]. But I never heard anybody whinging, I never heard anybody complaining. It was all positive attitude and getting together and feeding off the other's energy."