How the Pumas found their claws
On a cold November day 19 years ago, England took on Argentina at Twickenham and dished out a 51-0, seven-try spanking. History, you can confidently wager, is unlikely to repeat itself this Saturday.
In a country where soccer has always dominated, Argentine rugby football is in the ascendant. Two places higher than England in the world rankings, coming off two wins in their last three against the hosts and with their best players in demand at the game's richest clubs, this generation of Pumas will not roll over and have their bellies tickled.
That Argentina's rugby team could be more successful on the international stage than its football team represents one of the more remarkable stories in sport. And it is not something that has happened by accident.
"Rugby has been growing worldwide, but in Argentina it's probably grown more than anywhere else," says Felipe Contepomi, one of the key men in Argentina's wonderful run to third place in the last World Cup.
"We now have a club structure in place that is almost unbelievable. It's probably one of the strongest set-ups in the world."
Former England and Leicester scrum-half Les Cusworth was assistant coach to Manuel Loffreda during the World Cup and is currently head of the country's new high-performance programme.
"The strength of the game here now is phenomenal," he says. "There are 60,000 people regularly playing the game, 400 Argentines involved in professional rugby at some level in Europe and over 80 thriving clubs in Buenos Aires alone. The club game is booming.
"It's the best amateur league in the world. The sacrifice and passion of the players, coaches and officials is unmatched."
While the overall numbers might still be small in comparison to some Test nations (England has around five times as many players involved at amateur level), they are on the up. One Buenos Aires club alone, San Isidro, has 1300 youngsters from the age of eight to 18 within its set-up.
"The country is obsessed with football, big-time, but rugby is second in popularity, and a lot of people are very passionate about it," current Pumas skipper Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe told me on Thursday, standing outside Twickenham surrounded by happy Argentine fans after a photoshoot for adidas.
"These days rugby is a very open sport. It's all different social classes too - higher classes, lower classes. It's seen as a very valuable sport, with good values, and a help to society, and that's helped its spread. It's seen as a way of life, not just a sport."
Once encouraged into the game, the most promising 100 young players aged 17 and under are fast-tracked through a scheme looked after by the great Agustin Pichot, scrum-half and skipper to the national side for most of the past decade until his retirement last year.
"It helps them train, they help them get food, they help them get rest - they help with everything," says Lobbe.
"That means all the young players are now really well prepared. They're part of the system and they know everything, so that makes the senior team much better.
"Now you will always find new players coming through. The new system allows young players to be as good as they can be - they can now really achieve their potential."
Whereas in the past Argentina could only produce the occasional world-class player - take an extended bow, Hugo Porta - they now have a strength in depth that is the envy of many better-financed rugby nations. Their second-string, the Jaguars, won the first Americas Rugby Championship last month, and while the elite squad will certainly miss the injured Contepomi, Juan Martin Hernandez, Lucas Amorosino and Gonzalo Camacho on Saturday, it has not been fatally weakened.
Number eight Lobbe, front-row stalwarts like Rodrigo Roncero, Martin Scelzo and Mario Ledesma, lock Patricio Albacete and Harlequins centre Gonzalo Tiesi are all at least the equal, if not superior, to their opposite numbers in white.
"You watch these guys train," says Jonny Wilkinson of his Toulon team-mates Lobbe and Contepomi, "and you think, 'Thank God they are on my side'."
Of the 29 players in the Pumas squad for this tour, 21 ply their club trade overseas. For Contepomi, this has been a key factor in his country's dramatic improvement.
"It's huge," he says. "If you look at who our best international victories have been against, most of them have been over European countries. That comes because you play against those players week in, week out. If you can beat them at club level, you ask yourself, why can't we beat them at international level.
Argentina's win over England at Twickenham in 2006 was the springboard for success at the 2007 World Cup
"The players are now preparing better individually. The team as a whole can then play better.
"It's about being confident that you can play against the best and give them a good run. Sometimes you'll win, sometimes you'll lose, but no longer will you be going just to play a game - you'll know you could actually win a competition.
"All that unconscious fear of playing super-power players goes because you're competing against them all the time. To compare, we haven't played anyone in the Tri-Nations for the last two years, so every time we then play them we think we're playing against supermen."
Success has bred success. That landmark 25-18 win at Twickenham three years ago and the wins over Ireland and hosts France - twice - at the World Cup has fostered both an outstanding team spirit ("They have something very special - it is a pity you can't bottle it and sell it, because you'd make a fortune," says Cusworth) and fuelled the boom back home.
"It (the World Cup) was massive," says Lobbe. "There was a lot of happiness in Argentina, and it was very positive for the team, because it showed that when you work hard and stick with the right path you can achieve results. It was quite amazing."
All this hard work could yet go to waste, however. Argentina still only play friendlies against the top Test teams between World Cups. While they have a provisional invitation from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to join the Tri-Nations from 2012, there are still some major financial and television issues to be resolved.
"We need to play in an annual international competition," says Contepomi. "It's absolutely vital that we join the Tri-Nations in 2012. At the moment we're far behind those other nations, but I think if you keep competing against them every year we'll become better.
"At home, we need to make further improvements. We have to be realistic - rugby is a professional game worldwide, and if we want to keep up we have to be professional too. We must keep the old values, but that's the way it's going.
"Then I would like to see one or two Argentina-based franchises getting involved in the Super 14. There will be the first few years of a learning-curve, but then we will be much better for it."
Before all that, of course, comes the chance to inflict a second successive defeat on Martin Johnson's team. Even with their injury-hit team, the current generation can sense another famous win.
"It's going to be tough but we believe everything is possible," says Lobbe.
"For us Twickenham is the cathedral of rugby," smiles Contepomi. "It's an honour to play there, but there's no fear."