Volume 6, Number 1

March 2008

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The Development of Rugby in the River Plate Region: Irish Influences

By Hugh FitzGerald Ryan


The modern game

Argentina played its first full international game against a touring British Isles team in 1910. Distance, two World Wars and lack of funding limited international involvement until the later decades of the century. The game spread within Argentina itself. There are eighty clubs in the greater Buenos Aires area and about four hundred throughout the country. In the Northwest, the game comes close to surpassing football in popularity. More than seventy private schools, mostly bilingual as a result of British and Irish influence, and twenty universities, predominantly in the Buenos Aires area, have their own rugby teams. Women’s rugby has begun to develop in a handful of clubs. The season runs from March to November. This has enticed European teams to tour there for an easy run up to the Six Nations, only to be severely mauled by the Pumas. There have also been Irish links with the Pumas: two coaches were of Irish origin, Adolfo ‘Michingo’ O’Reilly during the 1980s and Dermot Cavanagh during the 1960s. There have also been players of Irish origin, including Santiago Phelan, who played in the late 1990s and retired in 2003.  

In their first World Cup, the Pumas scored a win over Italy but finished bottom of their pool on points difference. In subsequent World Cup tournaments and Test Series they scored notable wins over all the Six Nations teams and gave the All Blacks a severe fright, allaying any notion that they are a second-tier force in the rugby world. In the 2007 World Cup they devastated Ireland and went on to destroy the reigning champions, France, twice, coming third overall in the tournament. Many Argentinean players play professional rugby in Europe including Agustín Pichot, Felipe Contepomi and Juan Martin Hernández. Contepomi, a graduate of Cardenal Newman College, playing for Leinster, was named as the sports writers’ player of the year in Ireland in 2007. He made his international debut against Uruguay in 1995 and established himself as a formidable force with Bristol in England and later with Leinster, enabling him to complete his medical studies in Ireland.

Although the UAR considered a change to its statutes which would allow professionalism in Argentina’s domestic leagues, this was unanimously rejected in an extraordinary meeting in January 2008. Whilst some were pushing for inclusion in the Six Nations competition, it seems more likely that Argentina’s future lies with the Tri-Nations competition in the Southern hemisphere.

A very pleased Old Christians team, including Roberto Canessa (left) and Gustavo Zerbino (right), both Andes survivors. Gustavo is the current president of the Uruguay Rugby Union (URU)
(photographer unknown)

On the opposite bank of the Plate, the game similarly remains steadfastly amateur. After the formation of the Uruguay Rugby Union (URU) in 1951, four teams took part in the first club tournament: Carrasco Polo, Colonia Rugby (now defunct), Old Boys and Montevideo Cricket. Since then Old Christians, Los Cuervos, Champagnat and El Trébol (Paysandú) have joined the competition. Carrasco Polo has been the dominant champion for most of this time, winning twenty-one championships, followed by Old Christians with sixteen. Old Christians won the Championship in 2007. Brother McGuinness, speaking from retirement in County Kilkenny, expressed regret that the game was changing from an open, running game to one of ‘big hits’ and increased physical contact. He kept a close eye on the rugby scene in Uruguay. He maintained that Carrasco Polo retained its dominance by recruiting the biggest players available.

The Punta del Este Sevens attract the best players in South America and formerly some of the most outstanding players in the world, such as Jonah Lomu. The tournament is a major tourist attraction in Punta del Este and one of the highlights of the rugby year in the region. The URU puts a great deal of effort into organising youth rugby in the country by encouraging clubs and schools. In this way they have enlarged the pool of up-and-coming players, to the benefit of the clubs and ultimately, it is hoped, the national team, Los Teros. [12] On the international level Los Teros have won twenty, drawn one and lost thirty-eight. Notable wins were against Georgia in the World Cup in Australia; 18-12 against Portugal in 2007, following a previous defeat; 43-15 against Chile in 2006 and a spectacular recovery against Chile in 2007, coming from 27-0 at half-time to win by 35-34. Unfortunately they failed to qualify for the World Cup in France in 2007.

Hugh FitzGerald Ryan


I am very grateful to Roberto Canessa, Daniel Etchegorry, Bro. John McGuinness RIP (as I understand from his colleagues in Kilkenny, Brother McGuinness died on 28 October 2007, just a few days before Old Christians won the championship), and to William Revetria, Gabriela Viera, the teachers of Stella Maris and the members of Old Christians, for their help, guidance and recollections about rugby in Uruguay.


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2008

Online published: 12 March 2008
Edited: 07 May 2009

FitzGerald Ryan, Hugh, 'The Development of Rugby in the River Plate Region: Irish Influences' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 6:1 (March 2008), pp. 29-37. Available online (www.irlandeses.org/imsla0803.htm), accessed .


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