Argentina’s historic third-place finish at Rugby World Cup 2007 was rightly seen as the country’s coming of age on the international stage.
However, the seeds of that success were sown eight years earlier, also in France, when two of the stars of their triumphant bronze medal campaign – World Rugby Hall of Fame inductees Agustín Pichot and Felipe Contepomi – were still in the early throes of their international careers.
Los Pumas’ 28-24 victory over Ireland in the last play-off match to decide the quarter-final line-up marked a turning point in their history and set them on the road to becoming a real force in the game.
Battle of the boot
While replacement centre Contepomi made a key contribution in the build-up to Diego Albanese’s match-winning try in Lens, it was the goal-kicking of Gonzalo Quesada, Pichot’s half-back partner, that took Los Pumas onto the next level.
The fly-half finished the 1999 tournament as the top points scorer with 102 points, 23 of them coming against the Irish from seven penalties and a conversion, in what was effectively a kicking duel with his opposite number, David Humphreys.
What the match may have lacked in running rugby, it more than made up for it in drama as Argentina came back from 12 points down at the start of the second half thanks to Quesada’s unerring accuracy with the boot.
Following Albanese’s 72nd-minute dash to the corner, the only try of the game, and Quesada’s touchline conversion, Argentina had to pull out all the stops to defend their four-point lead and book their place in the quarter-finals for the first time.
France had too much firepower for a jaded Argentina in a high-scoring match in Dublin, but nevertheless, Los Pumas returned home with their heads held high knowing they had made a serious breakthrough.
“A bitter pill”
While Los Pumas were jubilant, despair and dejection were the overriding emotions in the Irish changing room.
Brian O’Driscoll would go on to experience many happy memories on a rugby pitch, not least his hat-trick on French soil the following year, but this certainly wasn’t one of them.
“Probably the worst I've ever felt after a rugby match,” was his reaction at the final whistle at Stade Felix Bollaert. “A bitter pill and a serious low. The only positive you can really take from that kind of experience is the knowledge that you don't ever want to feel like that again.”