Remembering Townsville 1983: Los Pumas famous match against Queensland Country

Reminiscing and rewriting the story of a game played 38 years ago can become a very complicated task. Before the world become hypercommunicated thanks to the Internet, and 1983 definitely is way before, there was nothing like the overabundance of text, photos and videos that is common practice today.

And sometimes, whatever evidence is available, even if boosted by memory and testimonies, may not be enough or consistent. That is exactly what happens when trying to retrace the 22-12 victory of Los Pumas against Queensland Country, in a game played August 3rd 1983, as part of the Argentina national team tour of Australia.

Pumas made history during that tour for various reasons. To start with, because they scored what was, for decades, their most resounding away victory, an 18-3 over ther Wallabies in the first test.

During the tour, the Argentinian scrum became famous worldwide. The "Bajadita" (Going Down/Sinking) technique, a coordinated push with all eight forwards engaging from a very low position, put the Wallabies in serious trouble. Australian rugby quickly learnt the lesson and ended up securing the services of Argentine prop Enrique "Topo" Rodriguez, who then became a Wallaby and played RWC 1987.

Last but not least, it definitely placed Hugo Porta among the best fly-halves in the world. Porta had already played a starring role by scoring all points when Sudamerica XV, with 15 Argentine players, defeated the Springboks 21-12 in 1982.

TOWNSVILLE REMEMBERS: A CITY GOES WILD

With Argentina set to return to Townsville, Scrum.com in Spanish made contact with Paul Radford, who is married to an Argentinian.

Paul, a former rugby player, was born in Townsville, still lives in the city, went to the 1983 match and plans to attend Saturday's double header wearing a Patricio Noriega shirt, donned by Pato in 1995, during another Pumas-Wallabies clash. Yes, Noriega, another Argentine prop who later turned Wallaby.

The original idea was to get a couple of quotes from him and understand what the atmosphere was like in Townsville- back in 1983. But Paul, lawyer by profession and passionate about the game, unfurled amazing journalistic talents, gathered valuable material and contacted everyone that mattered in order to reconstruct, as completely as possible, the story about the 1983 Pumas-QC matchup.

Just like with Bajadita, the concerted effort produced great results, and most of the inconsistencies were solved. But at the same time, the exercise of collective memory proved a very subjective process, selecting and magnifying certain details.

Among the many voices that helped rebuild the story, one stands out: that one of Col Harkness, who got the game going in Townsville in the 1970s and, at the time of the QC-Argentina game, was Chairman of the Organising Committee of the TDRU (Townsville and Districts Rugby Union).

"The game was a big big deal for Townsville and my memory is that Hugh Street, which is still the home of Townsville rugby, was full to the rafters, around 6,000," says Col. "Argentina had just beaten the Wallabies in Brisbane, so Country knew they were in for a hard game".

He adds that at least three local players were selected to start: Terry Shields (prop), Jeff Dillon (inside) and Murray Smee (fullback).

Jeff Dillon has very similar memories about how big an event it was for the city.

"The game was highly anticipated by the Townsville public," he says. "The All Blacks had played here a few years before, but it was unusual for a regional center to have a national team playing."

Jeff recalls: "There were contingents of locals meeting the team at the airport, Argentinian music playing in the streets, and a great curiousness, since there was very little knowledge of South American countries at that time."

He even remembers that many articles were published, one of which "compared Australian stockman with the famous Argentinian gauchos", a very apt comparison considering that both Queensland and the Argentine Pampas are well known for the quality of their beef cattle.

National teams do not visit country areas so often now, hence Paul is really enjoying these days. "The situation we have this coming weekend is absolutely unique, with all four Southern Hemisphere powerhouses all playing on one night in Townsville. This week I could see South Africa training at the Sports Reserve from my house, which was a bit unreal..."

Paul then takes a nostalgic turn and misses the good old days of touring teams.

"Pumas, All Blacks and British Lions were some of the teams that visited the region; we got to see them train and then we got to see them play again at night, learning a lot from them," he recalls. "Local rugby players got the chance of playing against the finest around and mixing with them later on, it was great and it inspired a fantastic culture - lifelong friendships were formed."

Col Harkness tells a story that embodies that spirit, evocating a very curious dinner at his place.

"The night before the game, my wife Eva and I hosted, among others, the Argentine Rugby Union president and coach Rodolfo O'Reilly to dinner. I recall late in the night persuading O'Reilly to show us how their then novel scrum worked, and that involved all of us setting scrums in the kitchen!"

UNFORGETTABLE: THE ARGENTINE SCRUM

"Bajadita" was a hot topic of conversation, especially after it was the key weapons for Pumas to secure the first test in Brisbane. Col remembers how everyone was shocked by the technique: "It was something we had never seen before, scrums set so low to the ground and the big shove."

From TDRURA, the Referees Association, Paul Martinez makes his contribution. Paul's father was actually born in Argentina, in the Patagonia.

"The Pumas had the strongest scrum in the world at the time. They were the first team to be awarded a scrum penalty try, when Australia dropped the scrum going backwards at 5kph," he says, but adds rather ironically: "Our response, Australian citizenship for one of their props, Enrique Rodriguez, the very next year."

Four days later, Queensland Country knew what they were up to, and everyone agrees that they did a good job neutralising "Bajadita".

But Jeff Dillon says that did not prevent the Pumas pack from imposing their conditions: "They were renowned for their scrummaging techniques, and this was certainly evident as they slowly overwhelmed our smaller, but courageous, pack."

HUGO PORTA, LIVING LEGEND

If the Argentine scrum was not so dominant, and if QC scored three tries against just one by Argentina, then there is an obvious question to be asked: How and why did Pumas win the game?

There is a first attempt to provide an explanation in the front page of The Townsville Daily Bulletin, shared by the writer and Queensland Country coach, Andy Purcell: poor place kicking let us down, with 0 from 5 attempts.

But that reason is quickly dismissed by each of our sources: yes, it was all about kicking, but due to Porta's magic right boot.

Argentina scored 22 points that night, 18 coming from Porta: five penalties and a massive field goal. The lonely try, then worth four points, was scored by half-back Marcelo Larrubia, who passed away in 2019.

In fact, it is probably such a dominant display by Porta that explains some deviations from what is on the record. Like awarding him a touch down he did not score, or a memory shared by several of the interviewees: that he was in the bench and came in with only 20 minutes remaining, to score all 22 points and heroically win a match that seemed doomed.

If written accounts are to be believed, Argentina was down 8-0 in the first minutes, but leading 13-8 at halftime, so they never looked back. The score then progressed to 19-8, 19-12 and 22-12 with Porta's last penalty kick of the night.

If that is the proper progression, then Porta was no saviour, but starter and captain of the team, as the same newspaper announced on the previous day.

There could be doubts because, if he actually started on Wednesday night, he would have played three full games in just a week, something impossible in rugby today, but common practice almost four decades ago. The fact is that he was not the only one, if records are correct: Marcelo Loffreda, Gustavo Milano, Eliseo Branca and "Topo" Rodríguez did exactly the same.

The five of them played the first test on a Saturday, started against Queensland Country on Wednesday and lined up again on the following Saturday, when Australia took revenge, winning 29-13 in Sydney.

As stated earlier: when a player takes center stage in such a manner, it has an impact on memories, and when those are transmitted by word of mouth they end up taking a different shape.

Jeff Dillon, for examples, still remembers Porta's field goal in the second half. And Paul Martinez adds a story that only a ref could catch.

"One of the QC breakaways was obviously under instructions to help remind Porta that he had been in a game in The Deep North," he recalls. "Porta soaked up all the slightly late, slightly high, slightly in-the-air tackles after his multitude of kicks... No penalties, that was the fashion in the day."

But late in the second half, Porta decided he had had enough. So tells Martinez: "The kick had landed, play continued, and the breakaway arrived on Porta's blind side - again, no whistle. Porta chased that breakaway for half a minute, well away from any play, it became a bit funny at the end. The breakaway eventually buried himself in a maul. Porta put the word out - Never saw him within 10m of the Puma #10 again".

Paul, then a teenager, apologises for some sketchy memories, but makes a perfect summary: "We were in front, then Hugo started kicking points."

Col Harkness also sums it up in very few words: "Hugo took the game away from us. If he wasn't so well known here beforehand, he certainly was the talk of the town after."

Greg Thorne, now a lawyer but then a promising rugby player, missed the game due to injury. And has very similar memories: "The game was dominated by Hugo Porta, who just kept kicking points from all angles and way out - you don't forget something like that."

Jeff Dillon felt privileged after the game: "It was played in good spirit and there was great camaraderie once it was over. As was traditional, players swapped jerseys, and I was fortunate enough to receive the number 10 jersey, which I valued greatly".

Memories are intact after 38 years. Incomplete and subjective, of course, but with the intensity of experiences that shape individuals and teams alike.

As will almost surely happen on Saturday, when Townsville enjoys another historic day, one of those that leave a mark on a city and its collective memory.