‘Special moment’ for South American rugby as Chile join Argentina and Uruguay at World Cup

‘Special moment’ for South American rugby as Chile join Argentina and Uruguay at World Cup

For the first time in Rugby World Cup history, South America will be fielding three representatives at the 2023 edition that kicks off in France on September 8, with first-timers Chile entering the fray alongside Uruguay and tournament regulars Argentina. The trio of nations will be counting on this unprecedented exposure to accelerate the sport’s development back home.

Argentina’s Pumas have been a fixture of the Rugby World Cup since the tournament’s inception back in 1987. For their 10th entry in as many editions, they will boast a brand-new logo on their striped shirts – correcting a six-decade-old feline mix-up that gave birth to their iconic nickname. 

South America’s rugby powerhouse was an unknown quantity until 1965, when a successful tour of Rhodesia and South Africa finally put the Argentinians on the map. A local journalist mistook the spotted jaguar on their shirts for a puma, handing the visitors a moniker that has stuck ever since. 

When Argentina kick off their latest World Cup campaign in Marseille on September 9, the players’ jerseys will finally reflect the nickname, having traded the jaguar for an actual puma.

But their return to French soil is set to evoke painful memories among the local fans, 16 years after the Pumas twice stunned the home nation at the 2007 World Cup in France.  

A surprise bronze medal that year propelled the Pumas into the rugby elite, paving the way for their admission into the Rugby Championship five years later, alongside the Southern Hemisphere’s traditional heavyweights New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Their fourth-place finish at the 2015 World Cup, complete with a quarter-final demolition of Ireland, further cemented the team’s international standing. 

Argentina stunned home nation France in the opening game of the 2007 World Cup, before repeating the feat in the third-place playoff. © Christophe Ena, AP

While the Pumas have enjoyed mixed fortunes over the past year, their historic defeat of England at Twickenham last November will give them plenty of confidence as they prepare to take on the 2019 World Cup runner-ups in their first group match in Marseille. They will then face Japan, Samoa and Chile – in the first all-South American clash at a Rugby World Cup. 

Going professional 

The tournament’s underdogs, Chile face an uphill battle against their Andean neighbours – their first encounter since Argentina triumphed in a 70-7 mismatch three decades ago. Since then, the Condors, as Chile are known, have only ever faced junior Argentinian squads stripped of their international stars.

“It’s going to be a historic match for South America,” said Paul Tait, cofounder of the specialist website America Rugby News. “It proves that rugby is progressing in the region.”  

Chile’s qualification for their maiden World Cup was the main surprise of the qualifying round, coming at the expense of better-ranked teams including the United States and Canada. The Chileans have since struggled in their World Cup warm-up tests, notably conceding a home defeat to Namibia earlier this month.

Long hampered by their geographical isolation and a limited pool of players, the Condors have benefited from the 2020 creation of the Superliga Americana de Rugby (SLAR), South America’s first professional rugby championship, set up with support from World Rugby, the sport’s international governing body. 

Since then, a group of around 50 Chilean players have trained and played together at the Santiago-based club Selknams, sparring with rival teams from Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay. That group has provided the backbone of the national team, which has few internationally based players to rely on. 

Similarly, Uruguay’s national squad – known as Los Teros, after the national bird – is drawn largely from the ranks of local club Penarol, which won the SLAR trophy last year, defeating Selknam in the final. While it proved to be the last season for the short-lived SLAR, both Penarol and Selknam are now part of a successor league, the Super Rugby Americas, which also features a club from the United States. 

In the shadow of football 

Uruguay will be playing in their fifth World Cup in France, eight years after they secured a famous win over Fiji in the pool stage at the 2015 tournament in England. Los Teros have landed in a fiercely competitive group, which includes three-time champions New Zealand and host nation France, as well as Italy and Namibia.  

Their presence at the World Cup alongside Chile and Argentina marks a “very special moment” for the continent, said Sebastian Pineyrua, head of Sudamerica Rugby, the sport’s local governing body – a success he credits in large part to the establishment of a professional league in South America. 

Uruguay's Facundo Gattas (left) and Felipe Etcheverry celebrate after their historic win over Fiji at the World Cup in 2019.
Uruguay’s Facundo Gattas (left) and Felipe Etcheverry celebrate after their historic win over Fiji at the World Cup in 2019. © Charly Triballeau, AFP

Pineyrua hopes the unprecedented exposure at the World Cup in France can help further develop the game back home, including in other South American countries where rugby is overshadowed by other sports.  

“We have two problems, the first of which is football, which takes up a lot of space in our countries,” he explained. “The other is the lack of international experience: Our teams lack the competitive opponents that can help them prepare for this type of event.” 

Despite such obstacles, the South American squads have already outperformed their wealthier northern counterparts. Both Canada and the United States – the joint 2031 World Cup hosts – will miss out on the tournament in France, despite having invested in the sport’s development and professionalisation. 

To avoid the same fate, and ensure this World Cup is no flash in the pan, South American nations must now increase the number of rugby clubs, players and coaches, while raising the standards of their national teams. A strong showing over the coming weeks in France would surely help them on their way. 

This article was translated from the original in French.