Argentina will honour Diego Maradona in their Tri-Nations Test against New Zealand on Saturday by trying to match his passion for playing for the country, coach Mario Ledesma said on Thursday.
Maradona, who played 91 times for Argentina, died at the age of 60 on Wednesday, plunging the nation into mourning.
Ledesma played 84 tests for the country, met Maradona on several occasions and said the 1986 soccer World Cup-winner was a big Pumas fan.
“He would watch tennis, hockey, rugby, football, whenever there was an Argentina jersey he was there and he was an example of how to represent that jersey,” Ledesma told reporters in Sydney.
“He’s a big figure in our country and he epitomised a lot of the way the Argentinians are. We’ll try to remember him the best way possible, on the field representing the colours.”
Maradona attended several Pumas matches and Ledesma recalled one occasion when he appeared in the stands during a match against New Zealand, who Argentina beat for the first time two weeks ago in Sydney.
Live Tri-Nations Rugby
November 28, 2020, 8:15am
“The world stopped when he was there, he had a kind of magic,” he said.
“One game against the All Blacks, the game had started and Diego came out and he (raised his arms) and everything stopped. We Argentinians all stopped and looked up, and the All Blacks stopped.”
Argentina were written off by everybody before the start of the makeshift Tri-Nations tournament but will put one hand on their maiden southern hemisphere Test title if they can find a way to beat New Zealand again this weekend.
The Pumas sent shockwaves around the rugby world two weeks ago when they deservedly earned their first win over the three-times world champions with a 25-15 victory in their first Test in more than a year.
They followed that with a battling 15-15 draw with Australia last week in Newcastle and, equal on points but with a game in hand over their rivals, have their first major international silverware within their grasp.
The odds would still have to be stacked against them but the Pumas have been defying expectations with missionary zeal and an iron will since landing in Australia.
A second victory over the All Blacks, however unlikely it would have seemed just a few weeks ago, would plunge New Zealand rugby further into crisis.
Ian Foster is under huge pressure after his first five games in charge netted two wins, a draw and two defeats, and should the All Blacks suffer three successive losses for the first time since 1998 it could well signal a premature end to his tenure.
Fly-half Nicolas Sanchez has scored every point in Argentina’s two matches, all but five from the kicking tee, so discipline will be essential if the All Blacks are to end their losing run, which includes a 24-22 loss to Australia.
Sanchez was one of only five players retained in the starting side for Saturday’s match as the Pumas face four matches in four weeks against top quality Test opposition.
Foster resisted the temptation to do the same, handing 12 of the players who started at Western Sydney Stadium two weeks ago the chance to redeem themselves.
Flanker Akira Ioane, lock Scott Barrett and prop Nepo Laulala are the new faces as New Zealand look to end their season with a bang and a bonus point victory.
“We have got another opportunity to finish the year on the level we want to,” Foster said on Thursday. “We have got a chance to win the championship and that means a lot to us.”
Argentina: 15 Emiliano Boffelli, 14 Ramiro Moyano, 13 Juan Cruz Mallia, 12 Jeronimo de la Fuente, 11 Santiago Cordero, 10 Nicolas Sanchez, 9 Felipe Ezcurra, 1 Mayco Vivas, 2 Julian Montoya, 3 Santiago Medrano, 4 Guido Petti, 5 Lucas Paulos, 6 Pablo Matera (c), 7 Marcos Kremer, 8 Facundo Isa
Replacements: 16 Santiago Socino, 17 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, 18 Lucio Sordoni, 19 Matías Alemanno, 20 Santiago Grondona, 21 Gonzalo Bertranou, 22 Santiago Carreras, 23 Lucas Mensa
New Zealand: 15 Beauden Barrett, 14 Jordie Barrett, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Jack Goodhue, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Aaron Smith, 1 Joe Moody, 2 Dane Coles, 3 Nepo Laulala, 4 Scott Barrett, 5 Sam Whitelock, 6 Akira Ioane, 7 Sam Cane (c), 8 Ardie Savea
Replacements: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Hoskins Sotutu, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Rieko Ioane, 23 Will Jordan