Stream of Italian Pumas has run dry... but for how long?
ITALY play their blood brothers Argentina next week and unusually, in recent decades anyway, they don’t have an Argentinan in their ranks.
I discount skipper Sergio Parisse who although born in Buenos Aires was the son of Italian parents – dad captained L’Aquila to an Italian league title – and the family just happened to be stationed overseas at the time of his arrival.
Parisse is no more Argentinian than Ronan O’Gara is American, Paul Ackford is German or Jamie Heaslip is an Israeli. But that link with Argentina has been very real in modern times.
It arose because although we think of Argentina as Spanish culturally, 60 per cent of the population now have Italian roots and second, all the time Argentinian rugby stayed strictly amateur there was a strong temptation for those wanting to make a living from the game to use their Italian qualification. There are modern day Pumas such as Tomas Cubelli and Matta Alemanno who were well qualified for Italy had they chosen that route.
Diego Dominguez, from Cordoba, but with an Italian grandmother, was the pivotal figure in all this having actually played for Argentina in two Tests in 1989 before he switched allegiance, as was permitted by the IRB back then.
Dominguez was world class and absolutely the key man in the rise and rise of Italian rugby in the 90s which culminated in his MOM performance in Rome in 2000 when Italy beat the reigning champions Scotland in their first ever Six Nations match. A record of 983 points in 74 Tests tells its own story, he remorselessly converted the pressure of those big Italian forwards into points, he gave shape to an inexperienced back division.
But there were others. A young Martin Castrogiovanni also ventured across the Atlantic to join Treviso at the very start of a career that resulted in 119 caps. Although he possibly prolonged his playing days a season or two more than was ideal there was a period when Castro was among the world’s best props. And biggest characters.
A trojan who often gets overlooked but was always highly rated by those tangling with him was lock Santiago Delappe. It’s difficult to remember anybody ever depriving Delappe of his line-out ball where he demonstrated a basketball player’s hands.
Another mighty servant was hard man centre Gonzalo Canale who, despite various injuries, won 86 caps. Canale was extremely powerful in busting through the first tackle, a yard more pace and he would have been a world beater, as it was he served Italy very well indeed.
And then there were the near misses as Italy went in search of a second Dominguez. Ramiro Pez and Luciano Orquerra – also from Cordoba – suffered by their constant comparison with the genius of Dominguez – who wouldn’t? – but both had their moments.
Pez finished with 260 points in 40 Tests which is decent but with his confidence low ultimately made too many poor decisions at important times. Orquerra was a vastly underrated attacking player with a matador’s flourish who some of the more pedestrian Italian backs struggled to read but his defensive frailties left him too exposed.
And now the tap seems to have been turned off. Or has it? Unless Argentina are granted the second Super Rugby franchise they have been promised the number of talented Argentinians wanting to play professional rugby overseas will grow and grow. And many of those will be eminently Italian qualified which will sidestep any stricter residency issues. Watch this space.
Genius: Diego Dominguez