By Karden Kelly. Published on US Rugby Magazine.
Buenos Aires. June 23.
We arrived in Buenos Aires exhausted but wide-eyed. On our way in to town, the gray day was brightened by the vibrant colors of the Argentine flags, displayed by proud fans in celebration of the Soccer World Cup. We were struck by the city’s odd balance of modernity and old world feel. Encased in lanes of traffic, squares emerged throughout the city. The most impressive was Avenida 9 de Julio, named in honor of Argentina’s Independence Day, a square more than two blocks wide by US standards. Energy abounds in Argentina; a combination of pride, passion and world influences that is evident in every aspect of its culture. We could not wait to walk the crowded streets and narrow sidewalks of Buenos Aires, which pulse with people. Unlike anything we expected, Buenos Aires is elegant and cosmopolitan with an undeniably Europeanflair. We took to the streets after lunch. Buenos Aires is full of travelers – travelers, not tourists and on the narrow sidewalks we encountered visitors from around the globe. Later, a group of us sat at an outdoor cafe Puerto Madero harbor, drinking Quilmes and exchanging rugby stories.
Later that day we practiced at the Centro Naval Rugby fields, acquired by club founder and president Captain Oscar Oulton. The complex includes three full-size rugby fields, two smaller practice fields, two full-sized hockey fields, men’s and women’s locker rooms, and a clubhouse overlooking a marina with a capacity of 200 boats. Centro Naval hosts international teams in town to play the Pumas and the All Blacks had practiced there earlier that day. After practice we returned to Puerto Madero for a buffet-style dinner. Later, some of us headed down the street to the Kilkenny, pleased to see that amid all its influences, Buenos Aires reserves space for a smoky Irish pub.
Women’s Rugby In Argentina.
Furies 10, Centro Naval 00. June 24.Women’s rugby in Argentina has developed slowly over the last five years, with four 15s teams and a steady flow of sevens sides emerging. Argentina’s Women’s National 7s Team plays Brazil, Venezuela, Chile, Peru and Uruguay. The Furies would meet two 15s teams – and Vicente Lopez (VILO) and Sixty RFC as well as a combined side from two brave sevens teams: Ciudad and Gimnasia y Esgrima de Ituzaingo – GEI). Argentina’s passion and energy is aptly demonstrated in the play of its women ruggers, who compete with intensity, and drive. The strength of Argentina’s women’s game is in the backline; as scrums, at this stage in rugby’s development, are uncontested. Two of our three matches were played at Centro Naval, with a medical staff on the sideline to promptly address injuries. We were also impressed by the patient, good-humored referees, who maintained the flow of the game.
In sharp contrast to conditions we are accustomed to in D.C., our first match was played on a gorgeous green pitch. On this day, however, pouring rain submerged the pitch in two inches of water. Spectators were limited to coaches, subs, the medical staff and strays who wandered over from a men’s match. Centro Naval had speedy players on the outside, so the Furies adapted with punches and inside plays. In a match slowed by the winter rain, the Furies got tries from Christina DiGiulio and Holly Gaff, while preventing Centro Naval from scoring. At game’s end, we exchanged hugs, kisses and the greetings we knew in each others languages. The sudden change was like watching a storm break: one minute we were mauling and the next we were embracing. En route to the clubhouse, we turned to see our opponents engaged in a celebratory, post-match mud fight; the Centro Naval veterans welcoming their rookies to the game. We ran back onto the field, dove into the mud, and slid directly into the fray. The Centro Naval players brought us into their circle, our inability to speak Spanish moot amid the laughter and singing.
Soccer World Cup.
Pictures and gifts were exchanged after lunch and then we departed for the hotel where we watched Argentina take on Mexico in the Soccer World Cup. The usually crowded streets were eerily empty; shops and eateries closed their doors, as the entire city crowded around televisions. Within the first ten minutes, the teams were tied 1-1, and this score held through the end of regulation time. We ran across the street to the supermercado, where cashiers and customers clamored in front of the television. Rodriguez chested the ball down and hammered it into the top right corner of the goal in the 98th minute, putting Argentina up 2-1. Our small semicircle erupted, and in an instant the streets overflowed with fans and flags, as Argentina defeated Mexico to advance to the World Cup quarterfinals.
All Blacks 26, Pumas 19.
Immediately thereafter we departed for Velez Sarsfield Stadium to watch Argentina take on New Zealand. The bus maneuvered through the celebratory crowd and we arrived to a swarm of Argentine flags on the shoulders of rugby fans. Many of us had never been to an international rugby match and we felt chills as we witnessed the Haka in person. We exchanged smiles and shared a look of disbelief. We were so excited to see the players we so often read about that we were on our feet for most of the first half. Occasionally, a cup of beer was passed, as some of us managed to sneak contraband into the dry stadium. We toasted one another and this incredible day. The day, however, was far from over. Argentine nightlife is indescribable. It begins with a long, late dinner, followed by drinks at the bar, before heading to clubs that open at 2:30 a.m. Wired from the All Blacks’ victory, we claimed a corner of a bar and discussed the match before heading to the Opera Bay Club. On the club’s largest dance floor, pictures of the Pumas and All Blacks illuminated a movie screen. And moments after entering the club, sightings of All Black players began. Impossible to miss on the dance floor, we moved our circle as close to them as possible and danced until it was light outside. Our day of rugby began with a morning match and ended with the following days rising sun.
On Sunday, the rugby continued with a Division I match at the pitch of the San Isidro Club (SIC). SIC, one of the top clubs in Argentina, has produced many Pumas past and present. On this rainy day, with 200 other fans, the Furies watched SIC defeat Belgrano 13-8. Buenos Aires has affordable shopping and is American friendly. Trendy Florida Avenue is bustling with small boutiques, department stores, telephone and internet access businesses and eateries; a line of kiosks serve as a median. It served as our indoctrination into the pace and etiquette of sidewalk traffic; pace, hurried – etiquette, none. We were obstacles until we grasped the essentials, gained a sense of direction and slipped into the rush. It was amazing to see rugby merchandise in the shops. When we mentioned that we played rugby, we were met with an approving nod, rather than the confusion found in the States. Many of us took advantage of the beautiful leather goods: bags, belts and custom tailored jackets ready by close of business. Others wandered the stands that lined the market at Recoleta.
Furies 26, Ciudad-GEI 00. June 27.
We returned to Centro Naval Tuesday night for a 10 pm game against a side comprised of two sevens teams: Ciudad and GEI. Ciudad is a local club while GEI’s players come from the town of Ituzaingo, an hour west of BA. The evening was cold enough to see your breath and family members watched from cars on either side of the pitch that had not recovered from the weekend’s rain. The combined side, which wore Ciudad’s jerseys the first half and GEI’s in the second, communicated and ran well with the ball. They could not, however, compensate for their lack of forwards and the Furies posted a 26-0 victory with tries scored by Amanda Fallon, Joan Oxman, Rebecca Jones, and Christina DiGiulio, who also made three of four conversions. We dined with the players and their families in the clubhouse. Our captains said a few words, gifts were exchanged, and the boat races began. I made my first trade of the tour with a Ciudad player who kept me company since the end of the match, despite our fragmented attempts at communication. Our morning flight did not deter the players from a final night in Buenos Aires. My room occupancy doubled as Ciudad players took to the town with us and barely slept before leaving for work in the morning.
We spent an entire day at the Iguazu National Park, strolling the paved trails that lead to the edge of the rain forest and the Parana River. We descended down to the water’s edge where we climbed into speed boats that took us under the falls and down the river’s rapids. After a jeep ride through the jungle, the tour culminated in a spectacular view of the Devil’s Throat, where 14 waterfalls converge and drop over 260 feet. Nightfall brought an Argentine barbeque with live music It was followed by a stop for coffee and helado in the company of Dutch, Mexican and American travelers at a sidewalk cafe. Then it was on to Cuba Libre for salsa dancing, where we stayed until nearly 6 a.m.
With our 7:30 a.m. bus departure for Corrientes looming, sleep was more of a threat than a comfort. A few of us packed our bags and brought them to the lobby, where we slept sitting on a couch until the bus arrived less than an hour later. We slept en route to Corrientes and stopped in the town of San Ignacio to stretch our legs. There we toured the ruins of the Guaranitic (Jesuit) Missions. The long awaited World Cup quarterfinal between Argentina and Germany was played that day and we crowded into a packed restaurant for lunch, with people watching a single television on the bar. The close game, too suspenseful to watch at times, kept us on our feet, but ended with a shootout that declared Germany the winner.
Corrientes. July 1.
We focused on our final match against the Sixty Rugby Club, arguably the best in Argentina, with a few national players on its roster. On the ride to Resistancia, Chaco, 10 minutes outside of Corrientes, we watched the city fade into fields and small houses. The road became less and less paved, and at the end of a dirt road were two rugby pitches with bleachers and a clubhouse. No matter how remote the location, or seemingly affluent or rural, every club has its own fields true home pitch. It’s no wonder that the Argentinean community is so rugby friendly rugby is a fixture of the community.
Furies 26, Sixty RFC 05.
Our opponents were aware of our previous victories and did not want us to leave the country undefeated. Unlike our previous matches, this team matched us in size and was the most developed in Argentina. There was an ongoing men’s game as we arrived, but the crowd’s attention was diverted as the American women headed to the locker rooms. Dozens of young boys, who had just finished their practice, watched from the sidelines as we warmed up and flooded our tour guide with questions. Two hundred fifty people, including both men’s teams, cheered on the Sixty women, while the local newspapers and television station covered what turned out to be the first international match on their pitch. Many of the spectators had never seen Americans, let alone American women rugby players. At kickoff, we recognized a familiar face across the line – a player who had been on the Nandu side during our last match. She had traveled over 700 kilometers to play us in Buenos Aires and now faced us again on her home pitch. There were horns on the sidelines as the crowd cheered with the energy of a full stadium. The Sixty RFC played a very physical game but the Furies impressed the crowd with our hard hits and aggressive play.
Sixty scored first when their wing picked up a loose ball and took off with stunning speed. Her try marked the first time we had been scored upon in Argentina and was the wake-up call we needed. The Furies responded with a hard drive on the kickoff, cleared the Sixty players at a ruck, and headed inside their 22. Off the back of a ruck, I picked up, grabbed a teammate, and rolled a maul over the line to touch down. At first there was silence, but the fans reluctantly cheered and became more and more responsive to the Furies throughout the match. Our momentum picked up with another try by Holly Gaff before halftime and two more in the second period by Julie Lau and fullback Christina DiGiulio, who added three conversions and shut down Sixty’s speedy breakaways. It was apparent at the end of the game that the Sixty players appreciated the experience and the feeling was mutual. The crowd clapped us off and, in a most unexpected gesture, people asked for pictures and autographs, offering hugs and congratulations. Fans and players traded everything from jerseys, shirts, shorts, socks and scrum caps. The most enthusiastic fans were the young boys. I traded my scrum cap with one of them and we posed for a picture. The rest of the evening, I saw my scrum cap on the various players who took turns trying it on. The kids also collected autographs from all of our players on their new shirts. The trade was meaningful not only to those involved in the exchange, but also to our tour guide who told me how rewarding it was to see kids around town wearing the gear of teams he had brought on tour.
After showers, there were cold liters of Budweiser waiting in the clubhouse. We then sat down with the Sixty players and families to a home-cooked meal of chicken and mashed potatoes, prepared and served by the Sixty RFC men’s team. The food was delicious, my favorite meal of the tour, and we were touched that the men were so thoughtful, bringing us seconds and thirds. Presentations were made and gifts exchanged after the meal. The Furies received a small trophy, a hand-carved wooden plaque of the Sixty logo and each player got a bracelet they had made for us. Shortly thereafter, music filled the clubhouse and the dancing began. Everyone danced, including our young fans, and the dancing crowd spilled out of the clubhouse. None of us wanted the night to end. We boarded our bus noting, This is what a tour is all about.
The trip would be over soon, and back home we’d share our stories with anyone who would listen. But at that moment on the bus, full of contentment, we sang our song to the teams of Argentina who had shared so much with us. Varsity Sporting Events balanced our rugby experience with a well planned itinerary full of cultural tours during our stay and assisted players who extended their trips after the tour had ended.