SYDNEY, Australia, Dec 3 – Argentina’s rugby union lifted the interim suspensions of skipper Pablo Matera and two other players for racist tweets Thursday, in a shock U-turn just two days after calling the posts “unacceptable”.
Coach Mario Ledesma hailed Matera as a “great human being” despite the tweets, which date back several years and were described as “discriminatory” and “xenophobic” by the rugby union.
The volte-face followed reports that Argentina’s players had threatened to strike over the suspensions of flanker Matera, second row Guido Petti and replacement hooker Santiago Socino.
All three players were left out of the team to play Australia in the final Tri Nations game in Sydney on Saturday. But Ledesma made clear they would be back.
“They reached an agreement with the union about not playing this game but what I can say is they are three fine players and great men, they are great human beings,” he said on a Zoom call.
“They’ve been suffering a lot this week, their families have suffered a lot this week. It’s really sad to see.”
Asked if Matera would resume the captaincy, he replied: “Exactly right. Pablo won’t be playing this game but he is still the captain.”
Jeronimo de la Fuente was handed the skipper’s armband for Saturday’s match, with sweeping changes to the Pumas team after their 38-0 thrashing by New Zealand last week.
Matera, 27, had earlier said he was “deeply ashamed” of the tweets, posted between 2011-2013 and since deleted, including one where he spoke of “running over blacks” with his car.
Petti referred to his domestic worker as a “primate” and spoke of “blacks” stealing mobile phones and wallets.
The posts resurfaced after criticism that the Pumas did not adequately pay tribute to Argentina football icon Diego Maradona, who died last week, before Saturday’s defeat by the All Blacks.
Ledesma said there had been “a lot of hate going on” during the week and his players were “really, really affected”.
“They are not the same people that they were at 17 or 18 years old. They are great men, family men,” he said of the trio.
In announcing the suspensions on Tuesday, the Argentina Rugby Union said it “condemns any instance of hate speech and considers it unacceptable that anyone expressing those views would represent our country”.
But on Thursday, it said that while the disciplinary process was continuing, “upholding interim measures is unnecessary, and it is decided to lift the suspension of the three players and reinstate the captaincy of Pablo Matera”.
– Rollercoaster year –
The turbulent week caps a rollercoaster year for Argentina, who have endured lockdowns and a coronavirus-hit build-up to the Tri Nations, where they stunned New Zealand and drew with Australia before crashing to the All Blacks last weekend.
It overshadowed the build-up to Saturday’s match, where New Zealand are set to be officially crowned Tri Nations champions.
Australia and Argentina still mathematically have a chance to edge them, but it will take a miracle.
They both need a bonus point win and in Australia’s case they must beat the Pumas by 101 points. For Argentina to clinch their most significant trophy ever, they need to thrash the Wallabies by 93 points.
Australia coach Dave Rennie said the Argentinian turmoil had not changed his preparations.
“We prepared as if the guys mentioned are going to be playing. And we don’t think from a structural point of view they are going to change a hell of a lot anyway,” he said.
“So we’ve prepared as if they will have their best team out there.”
Australia have been boosted by the return of playmaker James O’Connor, who missed the last three Tests with injuries. He reclaims the number 10 shirt from the versatile Reece Hodge, who shifts to fullback.
Among the forwards, Allan Alaalatoa returns at tight-head prop ahead of Taniela Tupou with the pack otherwise unchanged from the team that drew 15-15 with Argentina a fortnight ago.
“Ultimately what we really want is a quality performance, a reflection of all the hard work we have done over the last 10 or 11 weeks and something to launch our season off next year,” said Rennie.