Phelan: U20s are the future of the Pumas
By Frankie Deges
From Buenos Aires
Argentina coach Santiago Phelan knows what it means to play for his country at youth level.
Although the 36-year-old has been in charge of Los Pumas for the last two years and prior to that he wore the Argentine national jersey 43 times in test matches, he knows where it all started for him and the importance of playing youth rugby for his country.
As the IRB Junior World Championship in Argentina fast approaches, Phelan has been there and done that, having played for his country in a tournament on home soil and despite being involved with the national team at the same time, he will keep an eye on developments in the Litoral region from 5-21 June.
A flanker throughout his career, Phelan first donned Argentine colours in 1992 when he wore the Pumitas Under 19 jersey. The colours were the same but the hoops were much narrower than the full Puma shirt.
"For all of us at that age, being there meant everything. It was a goal and an end in itself," recalled Phelan. "With time, one realises that age-group representative rugby is great, but it is a step forward in the right direction.
"Those were wonderful days and I remember everything, every little detail."
Phelan had just turned 18 when he travelled to Madrid to compete in the FIRA Under 19 World Championship which Argentina had won in 1987, 1989 and 1990 - the first three times they played in it. In Toulouse (1991) and Madrid (1992), France regained control of the age group.
"In those days, the big game was always France," recalls Phelan. So much that before the final, Argentina Under 19s beat Chinese Taipei 92-3, Spain 59-3 and Poland 89-3 before succumbing to Fabien Pelous' France 22-18. "I came on in the second half of the final."
Phelan's first taste of international rugby was shared with other seven teammates who went on to play for Argentina at senior level. Mario Ledesma, a flanker then but world-famous as a hooker now, is currently coached by his old friend Phelan.
A year later Phelan was the senior statesman in the team. A natural leader, he captained "a very tight team which grew after a warm-up game against the Joinville Batallion."
That tournament in the French city of Lille was like all the others. The road to the final was easy - Romania beaten 50-7 and Italy 37-6 - but then France was waiting again and at the Stade Nord, Los Pumitas needed every minute of the game to win the FIRA wooden shield.
"France had Thomas Castaignède and Serge Betsen and you could already see they would be great players. But we never gave in and we scored with the last ball of the game … from the right touchline, Patricio Fuselli kicked the conversion with which we won 31-29. Unbelievable feeling."
Stars of the future
In those days, the Under 19s were the ultimate aspiration before Los Pumas. Things changed before Phelan grew too old. In 1995, the first Under 21 SANZAR / UAR Southern Hemisphere Tournament was played and the flanker was asked to lead that Pumita team.
"This was serious rugby. We were coached by current UAR President Luis Castillo and Horacio Mazzini and we were exposed to a standard of rugby new to us. Many of our opponents would play Super 12 rugby the following year or test rugby soon after."
That was a great first tournament, full of names that would grace test arenas for the next decade. In all, more than 30 percent of the players from the four teams would earn caps, including the likes of Gonzalo Quesada, Gonzalo Longo and Ignacio Fernández Lobbe for Argentina.
Other names include Christian Cullen, Carlos Spencer, Taine Randell and Anton Oliver (the last two would both captain the All Blacks) in the New Zealand Colts, Australians Nathan Grey, Toutai Kefu and Bill Young and future Boks André Snyman and Breyton Paulse. Three other players would represent Italy, Japan and Portugal.
"Again, those were wonderful days; the local support was incredible. We lost narrowly to NZ Colts 19-24 and I was injured in the first half against Australia."
An important step
Two knocks - one to his eye, the other to his head - left him concussed. "I woke up in hospital next to Gonzalo Quesada who had injured his shoulder. We lost 33-5." Injuries were not helped by a sending-off.
Argentina would finish winless after a one-point loss against South Africa but Phelan insisted that "after this tournament, we all knew how hard international rugby was. It was a superb experience." And fans bought into the concept instantly.
Wearing his current hat of national coach, Phelan would tell the players that are dreaming of representing their countries in the IRB Junior World Championship 2010 to just "enjoy the moment".
"This is an important step in their career; grasp the opportunity but don't forget to enjoy as this is their graduation from age-group rugby. Some might make it to the test arena, others might not. So this is a great chance to have a wonderful time."
To the Argentine team, the message is simple: "We are looking. This Junior World Championship is very hard and we'll see who is ready for the next step. Some of the team from last year are in the High Performance plan. They could be next as the system feeds from the Under 20s."