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Hugo Porta: The man who broke the Maradona monopoly

Russell Cheyne/Allsport

Bernardo Houssay won the 1947 Nobel Prize for medicine, Arturo Rodriguez Jurado the gold for heavyweight boxing at the 1928 Olympics, and Ernesto Guevara became a revolutionary icon. But the first Argentinian rugby player to achieve international renown for his feats on the field was Hugo Porta, who turns 65 on September 11.

Like many of the greatest careers, his had elements of the serendipitous. He was initially enthused by football, and good enough to have interested the famous Boca Juniors club. And he began rugby life as a scrum-half, which he played well enough for Banco Nacion -- his first and only club -- to be called into the national squad as a teenager, before an injury crisis led to his being pressed into service as an emergency outside-half at a squad session.

That was the end of the budding scrum-half. His first cap at No.10 followed shortly after, against Chile in Buenos Aires a month after his 20th birthday in 1971. And it would be the best part of another two decades -- a durability which helped persuade the young Diego Dominguez that invoking his Italian ancestry might be a better route to an international rugby career than waiting for Porta to lose form or quit -- before Argentina again wanted for an outside-half.

The numbers are impressive -- a Test career which lasted from 1971 to 1990 and a total of 651 points , then the all-time record for any international player, in 52 matches for Argentina and eight for South America.

"You could only keep doing your best and sit back and admire him through gritted teeth" Michael Lynagh

Even if the 228 points scored against nations not then recognised as having full Test status are excluded, he went well past the previous man on the all-time record holders list -- Andy Irvine, with 301 points -- before eventually giving way to Michael Lynagh.

And he was vastly more than an accumulator of points against weaker nations. His career coincided with the period in which Argentina started to threaten the established order. And a common factor in the landmark results of that period is the contribution of the Porta boot.

He scored all 18 points in the draw against France in 1977, a further 16 including a hat-trick of drop goals in the 24-13 defeat of Australia in 1979, every point including another trio of drops in the 21-21 draw with the All Blacks in 1985 and a further 21 in South America's 21-12 overthrow of the Boks at Bloemfontein in 1982. His 28 drop goals were also an all-time record, since overtaken by Jonny Wilkinson.

Yet it was as a creator that he made the greatest impression. Carwyn James, a towering rugby intellect and himself a former international outside-half, wrote after first seeing him in the flesh of having "his faith restored in the aesthetic and artistic possibilities of back play".

John Reason wrote that he "could play closer to an opponent without being tackled than the top matador working with a bull", and there are echoes of Jack Kyle in Reason's observation that "he looked predictable but never was."

Opponents were similarly awe-struck. All Black captain Graham Mourie reckoned, from his privileged open-side observation point, that Porta was the best first-five he played against, recalling memorably that he "always left a free arm slack so he could 'sense' a tackle coming and adjust: he felt that on his arm like a cat's whisker".

Michael Lynagh found him "hard even to get near" and that "you could only keep doing your best and sit back and admire him through gritted teeth".

In 1985 Midi Olympique reckoned him the best player in the world, while Rothmans' Rugby Yearbook named him the best outside-half of the 1980s -- a decade which also saw Naas Botha, Mark Ella, Lynagh, Jonathan Davies, John Rutherford, Ollie Campbell, Tony Ward, Rob Andrew and Grant Fox. Legendary commentator Bill McLaren rated him the best he had seen.

Yet perhaps the most remarkable honour was the one conferred at home, as Argentina's Sportsman of the Year in 1985. It was one thing for the aficionados of long-established rugby nations to recognise his greatness, quite another for his famously football-besotted compatriots to look past its practitioners -- who in 1985 included a near-his-peak Diego Maradona -- to a giant in a minority pastime left over from Argentina's past as an economic dependency of the British Empire.

A qualified architect, Porta retired from rugby in 1990 expecting to go into the family kitchen business. But he was rapidly diverted to an old rugby stamping ground when President Carlos Menem, wanting to re-open diplomatic relations with South Africa following the release of Nelson Mandela, appointed him ambassador to Pretoria.

Menem calculated correctly that Porta's personality and rugby fame would outweigh any objections to the sanctions-busting of the three 'South America' tours he led to the Republic between 1980 and 1984, the name a thin disguise adopted by overwhelmingly Argentinian squads because of their union's opposition to contact with apartheid. His time in Pretoria was followed by a spell as Argentina's Minister of Sport, no sinecure in a country which takes it so seriously.

The voice heard in periodic interviews in recent years has been one of nostalgia for the amateur game. But there is no reason to doubt him when he says that he never made a cent playing rugby -- Argentina was the one country exempted from the seminal Pugh report's damning condemnation of the hypocrisy of leading rugby nations over money.

And you don't have to be an apologist for the pre-1995 era to share his worries that "players don't have the freedoms that I felt when I was a player" or that they might not 'develop minds and thinking in the same way as their bodies".

Idealist as he is, Porta was also enough of a pragmatist to have played his part, as a member of the Argentine Rugby Union's directorate in the early years of Argentina's evolution from rigid amateurism to the highly successful professionalism of the present.

As the Pumas of today continue their thrilling challenge to the game's long-standing hierarchies, they will doubtless join much of the rugby world in wishing their greatest forerunner Feliz Cumpleanos.