November 26th, 2004  

Topic: Ledgend

AGUSTIN PICHOT and Felipe Contepomi have a number of things in common, one of which is that their sporting hero is a short, fat guy with ongoing health problems.

Add in that he is currently based in Cuba, and it doesn't take long to work out his name is Diego Maradona.

Argentina's great passion for soccer, and Maradona in particular, will never change - even, it seems, amongst the country's top rugby players.

Nor should it, but Argentina do also have a top class rugby team - a point proven by last Saturday's 24-14 success over France in Marseille, just a week after the French were described as the best team in the world by Australian coach Eddie Jones.

If they so desired, the likes of skipper Pichot and Contepomi would be entitled to sound off a bit before tomorrow's test with Ireland at Lansdowne Road. But that's not their style; they prefer to deal with matters in a refreshingly honest manner.

Typical is their reply to the question of who is their sporting hero.

It would have made some political sense to throw in the name of a former rugby star, most obviously Hugo Porta.

But there's simply no point. Maradona is out on his own, a footballing genius who has inspired soccer, rugby, and just about any other sport in Argentina.

"He is my only sports hero," revealed Contepomi, another No 10. "He has his problems now, but he has given a lot to the whole population."

It is a view echoed by Pichot, a close friend of Maradona's. He said: "My sports hero is Maradona because he was a genius. He made us happy for a long, long time."

Equally, it appears, Pichot and Contepomi are honest about last Saturday's win over France. Pichot, while appreciating that it was a magnificent win for a new look side, clearly doesn't want to get carried away.

He explained: "France played really well to beat Australia, but Eddie Jones said that they are the best team in the world because he was looking for an excuse. France couldn't resolve how to play us technically, they couldn't think their game in the wind."

Pichot puts the fact that the Argentinian half-back combination somehow managed to cope pretty well mainly down to the work of his pack.

Contepomi, for his part, believes that the French remain one of the top three sides in the world, irrespective of what happened in Marseille last Saturday. He said: "The French team were, and are, better than us, we know that. Just as we know that Ireland are a better team than us, even if we beat them on Saturday."

If that may sound overgracious, then that is the type of guy Contepomi is. The College of Surgeons student simply won't be drawn into talk of any frustration with his inability to have made Leinster's Heineken Cup starting line-up to date, preferring to emphasise what a talented squad Leinster have.

As for the observation made earlier this week in the Irish camp that he seems to play his best rugby in the Argentinian jersey, he, quite rightly, points to the fact that he will try just as hard no matter who he is playing for.

He does, however, add: "Perhaps I play my best rugby in Argentinian jersey, it is true. But perhaps I understand better with Pichot. We feel the same, we play the same way, so things will go easier."

On the subject of his opposite number tomorrow, Ronan O'Gara, Contepomi is again very complimentary, describing him as a "great player who is performing really well at the moment."

Pichot, while obviously not knowing the Irish players as well as his half-back colleague, has a fair idea of what to expect. Not only has he played against Ireland five times, but he has also featured alongside a number of them, Brian O'Driscoll included, for the Barbarians.

"I think they are great guys. They have the same mentality as we do, so we enjoy great friendship - Malcolm O'Kelly, I also played with Clohessy, The Claw.

"There have always been talented guys in the Irish squad. Humphreys is, for me, one of the best fly-halves in the game.

"Then you have O'Gara, a good player, and I think the scrum-half Stringer commands well."

So, there is clearly no hang up, or bad feeling, from the meeting with Ireland which saw Argentina lose 16-15 at Adelaide in the World Cup?

"Absolutely not. I personally have no problems about Ireland beating us in the World Cup, just as Ireland didn't have problems with us beating them in 1999. In my opinion, such talk is just a marketing ploy.

"I have always admired Ireland since I first played against them, they have such a great structure. We don't have that structure, of course, but Ireland and Argentina are pretty even, so matches are always going to be very hard-fought."