Juan Martin Hernandez: Mercurial architect of Argentina's rise to prominence

Juan Martin Hernandez returned to Argentina in 2016 to play for the Jaguares in Super Rugby. Daniel Jayo/LatinContent/Getty Images

"I believe that he has left an indelible mark on the history of Argentine rugby." Those were the thoughts of former Argentina coach Marcelo Loffreda as he pondered Juan Martin Hernandez's decision to step away from professional rugby.

Hernandez, a mercurial presence on the global game for the past 15 years, has been forced to hang up his gilded boots by a knee injury suffered while playing for the Jaguares in Super Rugby last month. That he was still able to have an impact on the competition aged 35 is testament to his powers on the pitch.

At his peak, that natural ability and confidence in the blue and white shirt helped transform perceptions of Argentinean rugby and brought comparisons with another great No. 10 from the north-east of the country -- Diego Maradona.

Hernandez has committed himself to returning one day, when he "misses" rugby, to impart his wisdom on the next generation of Argentine talent, and we must hope he does. No one player has done more over the last 20 years to elevate the Pumas' international standing than the man nicknamed "El Mago" ["The Magician"].

Some, Loffreda included, might be able to claim that they have worked harder, while Hernandez's one-time half-back partner Agustin Pichot now ensures Argentina's voice is heard in World Rugby's corridors of power. But it was the genius of El Mago that helped his country break through the game's glass ceiling during six sesational weeks in France 10-and-a-half years ago.

Argentina were by no means mugs when they turned up to the 2007 Rugby World Cup, but having been eliminated at the pool stage in four of the first five tournaments, they were not yet part of the elite. Perceptions would begin to change by the end of October.

The Pumas' World Cup was bookended by victories over hosts France as they stormed to third place with a swagger previously not associated with teams from the Pampas. At the heart of it all was Hernandez, the effortlessly cool new face of the national team.

Hernandez, at this stage, had been at Stade Francais for more than four years and had built a reputation as one of the most exciting players in European club rugby, largely as a fullback. But for those viewers with only a passing knowledge of the Top 14, confirmation of his ability came in the crucial Pool D clash with Ireland on September 30, 2007.

Argentina needed only a point to reach the quarterfinals as group winners, but inspired by their ice-cool conductor, the Pumas eased to a 30-15 victory. It was one that included a hat trick of drop goals -- two scored via his right boot, one on his left -- from Hernandez, but his majesty was not confined to his boots.

With five minutes of the first half at a packed Parc des Princes remaining, El Mago hoisted an up and under high into the Parisian sky from deep inside his own half. The match was delicately poised at the time -- Hernandez's second drop had given his side a slender one-point lead -- but that mattered little to the fly-half as he raced after his kick, beat Geordan Murphy to the ball in the air and then as he was returning to the turf flicked a pass to the rampaging prop, Martin Scelzo, on his right shoulder.

It was the type of play that you had to watch again to make sure your sight had not deceived you, and was the exactly the kind of captivating skill that became El Mago's stock and trade. To put it simply, Hernandez's performances gave Argentine rugby a new face.

Gone was the trudging, hard-nosed, forward-dominated style of the early 1990s and in its place had appeared a man who wore the blue-and-white No. 10 shirt with the assurance, elegance and downright confidence of Maradona -- a comparison not lost on his adoring public.

Another left-footed drop goal helped the Pumas past Scotland in the quarterfinals and despite losing to eventual champions South Africa in the last four, their third-placed finish was rightly heralded as a real success. Hernandez's performances at the 2007 World Cup did more than most to convince people that Argentina could cut it at rugby top table, helping pave the way for their admittance to the Rugby Championship five years later.

That is not to say that the Pumas in 2007 were a one-man team. Pichot, Felipe Contepomi, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, for example, would have got into most teams in the tournament, but without El Mago would the clamour for Argentina's status to be elevated have grown so loud?

Despite injuries -- one that cost him his place at the 2011 World Cup -- and the emergence of Nicolas Sanchez with Argentina, Hernandez continued to dazzle defences and wow crowds until his knee took one knock too many last month.

Certainly fans of Stade, Racing, Toulon, the Jaguares and the Sharks, however briefly, would not have felt short-changed, but El Mago's greatest gift to Argentine, indeed world, rugby remains that autumn spell 11 years ago when he captured the hearts of rugby supporters worldwide.

Hernandez certainly left an indelible mark, but it was not confined just to Argentina.