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Boks wary of brave Pumas '10'

2012-08-16 11:43
Cape Town – Juan Martin Hernandez shapes up as a potentially dangerous, “mystery” factor for Argentina against the Springboks at Newlands on Saturday.

It is not that South Africa will enter the Castle Rugby Championship opener in the dark about the Pumas flyhalf’s ability or style of play ... quite the contrary, in fact, considering that Hernandez has experience of Currie Cup rugby three years ago for the Sharks.

But the great unknown – both to the heavy hometown favourites and Hernandez’s own underdog outfit -- is really how he will reacclimatise to Test rugby after a three-year absence.

The Racing Metro-based player’s return to this level of competition, beautifully timed in many ways as it marks the Pumas’ debut in an expanded southern hemisphere tournament, is a bit of a feel-good sporting story.

For Hernandez, who turned 30 earlier this month, has had to exhibit both strong courage and patience in getting himself back to full fitness after a catalogue of injuries that have included particularly unwelcome ones for professional rugby players: back surgery that included the fusion of two vertebrae, and the dreaded tearing of an anterior cruciate ligament in one knee.

Despite his popularity and success at Currie Cup level with the Sharks in 2009 (he was earmarked to play Super Rugby the next year, a much desired personal box he wanted to tick) his stint at Mr Price Kings Park was also the start of his back woes.

In an interview with the August edition of SA Rugby magazine, Hernandez recalls his grim battle to stay on the park: “I struggled to even make it to the shower after each game. It was impossible to do anything on the Sunday and I couldn’t train on the Monday.

“I did some gym work on Tuesdays (but could) only train on the Friday ... that was my life in South Africa.”

So Hernandez’s determined claw-back to be able to grace the 2012 Rugby Championship is something that ought to earn appreciation even from an overwhelmingly pro-Bok faithful at one of rugby’s most iconic venues on Saturday.

Whether he has recaptured the required amount of confidence for the game at its highest tier after his many sessions of surgery and rehab may be the key to his level of influence against South Africa.

Hardly under scrutiny is his broad footballing pedigree -- as you might expect of a player who boasts a sister, Maripi, with silver and bronze medals for hockey at two Olympic Games and an uncle, Patricio, who was once an attacking midfielder for the national soccer team.

Bok coach Heyneke Meyer clearly isn’t under-estimating the possibility that Hernandez’s dogged spirit pays off to a healthy extent in this Test.

“I think that at one stage he was probably close to being the best flyhalf in world rugby. He’s proved himself in toughest competition in France.

“I don’t think he’d ever had a really good off-season but now with his op behind him and being back in form (for Racing) I really believe he is a danger man; he can kick with both feet and is a great distributor.

“And if he plays well, the whole team tends to play well.”

Hernandez’s last Test appearance for Argentina may be as far back as June 13 2009, but on that occasion, significantly, they beat England 24-22 at Salta, with the No 10 contributing 14 points from a conversion, three penalties and a dropped goal.

Before his depressing run of serious injuries, Buenos Aires-born Hernandez, who will play his 33rd Test at Newlands, had looked every bit like extending a proud Pumas tradition of producing genuinely world-class flyhalves.

His return to the fray comes just as one long-serving predecessor, Felipe Contepomi, is on the verge of retiring from first-class rugby at the age of 34.

Contepomi, still on the books of Stade Francais for the time being, has also played some international rugby at inside centre, to accommodate Hernandez just inside him in the No 10 channel.

But Contepomi was at flyhalf the last time the Pumas played the Boks, at Coca-Cola Park in 2008, when the host nation romped to a 63-9 victory; he has served the Pumas since 1998, which was also the first year that South Africa won the former Tri-Nations competition.

Of course many South Africans have also been witnesses to the aplomb in a No 10 jersey of a certain Hugo Porta, who represented Argentina for an astonishing 19 years between 1971 and 1990 and is firmly installed among the game’s all-time legends.

A career highlight for Porta was contributing all 21 points for the South American Jaguars when they upset a Bok team otherwise in the grips of isolation at Bloemfontein in 1982 – it earned them an extraordinary 1-1 series outcome after the Boks had posted 50 points at Loftus only a week earlier.

Certainly South Africa have reason from a heritage perspective, then, to be on their guard for any herculean feats by an Argentinean No 10 against them on Saturday ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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