We’re sitting in our rental car in the heaving streets of Buenos Aires, trying to get to Estadio José Amalfitani. There’s a couple of hours to go before the All Blacks play the Pumas, and it’s getting a little tense because the police have blocked off the one road we know will get us to the stadium. The detour has caused us to loop around, through a teeming suburb of low-rise concrete and acrid fumes.
The car contains the entire New Zealand media contingent. There’s five of us – Ross, Warren, Nigel, Hamish and myself. You couldn’t get a more Kiwi group of names this side of a Heartland Championship team sheet. None of us can speak more than a few words of Spanish.
So far, we’ve made it to the highway underpass and traffic isn’t moving. It’s incredibly noisy, horns are honking and locals waving blue and white flags are already clogging up the road.
From up on the highway, I hear a voice scream: ‘Putos!’ – one word I do know, and it’s not good. A can comes flying down and lands near the car. I look up to the highway and see a stream of buses carrying San Lorenzo football fans. They’re going to a fixture nearby and have taken time to hurl abuse and debris at us, which is unsurprising.
But, by now, nothing is surprising. I’ve only been in Argentina for 72 hours and have already experienced how seriously they take football, as well as eating, driving like absolute maniacs and listening to ‘Despacito’. And to top it off, we’re all hungover. The day before started early, with a trip out to Club Atlético River Plate’s training facility for a sponsor event that a few All Blacks are attending. The event itself, where the players kicked some footballs around and showed a few of the River team how to kick a rugby ball, was just a sedate interlude between the most terrifying car rides I’ve ever experienced. Our driver, in his mid-60’s, averaged a speed of around 140 km/h up and down the highway in his Toyota Corolla. On the way back we had the benefit of tucking in behind the All Blacks bus’ police escort, so he could go even faster.
However, we weren’t the only ones with that idea. Plenty of regular folks tried to get in on the path cleared by the blaring police bikes, so the whole 45-minute journey was like something out of Mad Max.
Later that day, we attended the All Black captain’s run at San Isidro, a team that was formed by a group of players banned from another club for taking off their pants during an after match function in 1935. Kieran Read dropped some humour for the first time all season, responding to a reporter about the progress of him learning Spanish. He said that he knew how to say ‘please mind the doors’, which showed that the most attention he’s paid to the local language was examining the sign on the inside of a lift.
The All Blacks’ media management invited us out for dinner later on, and we were joined by an exceptionally beautiful local ESPN journalist.While she made us all regret that we’d all decided to dress in vintage New Zealand casual style, I ended up down the other end of the table talking politics with Justin Marshall. After that unforeseen turn of events, fellow former All Black Jeff Wilson began trash talking me into playing basketball the next morning. I’m pretty certain he’d confused me with someone else, but his assessment that I was rubbish at hoops was fairly accurate.
It didn’t help that we’d all drank a few too many bottles of Malbec, either. The next day, River Plate let us use one of the basketball courts underneath their home of Estadio Monumental for a surprisingly intense encounter. My head was throbbing and luckily I ended up on Wilson and Marshall’s team, so I spent the entire game just passing them the ball. We ended up winning, after which I promptly went back to my hotel and fell asleep.
After a few hours of shut-eye, we piled into the rental car and began the journey out to Estadio José Amalfitani and end up under the overpass. I make a joke about the football fans hurling abuse and whatever else at us, but no one responds. Everyone’s a little bit seedy after the big night before, plus we don’t know where we’re going to leave the car. But, after crawling through traffic and language barriers, we manage to secure a park right out front of the stadium.
There’s three hours till kick off and the place is already heaving. Sirens blare as the All Blacks bus pulls up, and crowds of kids mob the pavement to get a glimpse of the players. I go and check out a fan zone around the back of the stadium, which is full of kids and families in their local club colours.
The stadium itself is old-school. As in, medieval old-school. Ten-metre high fences separate the terraced ends from the field, with a moat topped with barbed wire for good measure. The whole place looks like it last had a paint job in the late ‘80s, but the internet connection is pretty good so we can’t complain.
The game comes and goes fast. There is no clock or way to hear the referee, so we have to guess what infringements are occurring. The All Blacks’ early onslaught deadens the atmosphere, so by halftime the passionate roars that accompanied the Argentine anthem have given way to polite clapping. Versions of ‘Despacito’ are played over the PA before, during and after the game. 36-10 and a regulation win for the All Blacks. Read has had an eventful night: scoring two tries and ending up in the sin bin, but has another moment of castellano comedy at the press conference. His one word answer to a long-winded question in Spanish has us laughing out loud in a post match presser for the first time all season.
Afterwards, the Newshub guys are filing their story. The rest of us nervously wait in the now empty car park as a group of teenagers drink and rip their trail bikes up and down the street nearby. It’s almost a relief when we get back to the insanity of the highway system that takes us back to the city.
We go our separate ways into the night. I take a taxi back to my hotel, the driver gruffly asked me: 'Inglaterra?' 'No, no amigo...Nova Zelândia.' 'Ah, es OK!'
With that reminder that Anglo-Argentine relations still haven't quite gotten over the Falklands War, I endure one more crazy car ride through the dark streets of Buenos Aires. However, this time I got an added bonus commentary by the driver about the
relative promiscuity of Argentine and New Zealand women.
A couple of months ago I was on the Lions tour, six weeks of madness traveling up and down the New Zealand. I never thought I’d do anything like that again, but I was wrong - this was pretty much all of that packed into three days.
The rugby is the last thing I’m going to remember about this trip, though.
Photo by Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images