PARIS, France — The honour of being named in World Rugby’s Hall of Fame sits a little uneasily with Juan Martin Hernandez. He will be inducted on Oct. 29, the day after the Rugby World Cup final, as the 165th player in that pantheon of greats. But he’s far more comfortable with No.10, 12 or 15 accompanying his name.
“Those kinds of things are very good for the ego,” Hernandez tells ESPN. “But it’s not all yours, it’s a team sport. You have to share with every coach, player, fan, president you’ve worked with and your family. Without them, it’s worth nothing. It means so much, but it’s for them.”
Hernandez retired from the sport in 2018 with a knee injury. He is regarded as one of the great playmakers of the modern era and was as solid under the high ball as he was pinging a 50-yard touch-finder.
Talking in France, he still looks ready to play Test rugby — immaculately dressed in pressed white polo and black trousers, not looking a day older than he did during his playing days which saw him accumulate 74 caps for Argentina.
He loves the game still, taking equal pleasure from watching Antoine Dupont as he does from tracking how a back-row has got into position to clear out a ruck. His technical intrigue blends the instinct which saw him unpick opposition defences with delightful ease in a flurry of passes, kicks, dummies and darts — including that pass off his left-hand in the bronze medal match against France 16 years ago in Paris.
But talking to Hernandez in France during a World Cup, you can’t help but be engulfed by a nostalgic blue and white cloud, reminiscing about the 2007 tournament where his Pumas shocked the world to reach the semifinals. He was at the heart of the team, but there is no emphasis of the individual when it comes to looking back on his career.
The Argentina team in 2007 was the Pumas’ manifestation of the “Last Dance.” The core of that group had been there in the 1999 World Cup — players like Mario Ledesma, Martin Scelzo, Nacho Lobbe, Gonzalo Longo, Agustin Pichot, Felipe Contepomi and Ignacio Corleto. It was a transformative tournament as a group of predominantly Argentina-based players reached the quarterfinal.
“After that, they started playing in Europe,” Hernandez says.
The 2003 crop failed to get out of their pool. “I was involved there. I was a young guy, with [second-row Patricio] Albacete as well. Those guys like Nacho and Felipe were in the middle there, becoming like senior players in four years,” Hernandez adds.
“So the team thought we were gonna have a really great World Cup but we lost to Australia and Ireland. The preparation was not serious, it wasn’t good. It was like we felt we had the players who reached the quarterfinals in 1999, and now they are more experienced so okay, we’re going through. But the preparation was bad and a lot of the old players were frustrated and finished their career there.”
By the time the 2007 tournament came around, the core group was looking to take their mixed World Cup experiences and throw them behind a run in France.
“The young players of 1999 were the senior players with both experiences: the good one and the bad one, so they said, this was our last World Cup,” Hernandez recalls.
“We have to make the best of it. We didn’t have the competition to develop a game, but we had really good players in this sport, but not the competition. So it was like kicking, chasing, tackling, penalties, drop balls and that’s it. So the team, we arrived knowing what we can do, what we cannot do, and to prepare for that. That was perfect.”
For Hernandez, one of his main personal challenges was playing in a new position. He was a dyed-in-the-wool fullback, but Marcelo Loffreda wanted to bring his playmaking talents into the heart of the team as fly-half. That would mean shifting Felipe Contepomi, one of the best No.10s in the world, to inside centre.
“I was not playing fly-half until a warm-up game against Belgium,” Hernandez says. “I was with the coach Marcelo Loffreda at a talk recently, and he said he wanted to play me at fly-half a couple of years before but he couldn’t because either I was injured or, the team needed another thing, or I was with Stade Francais in the [Top 14] finals and I couldn’t go to the June Tests.
“So he would never give me chance to play fly-half but it was only at the World Cup. So it was strange.
“Two months ago was the first time I asked Felipe what he felt. I was doing some interviews for ESPN and I said: ‘I never asked you before. I’m asking right now in front of the cameras, how did you feel?’ And he said: ‘The only question I asked was, okay, but who’s playing? Loffreda said Juan. I said okay.’
“For me, that’s an act of greatness. He was maybe the best 10 in the world at the time but having the humility to see what was best for the team was incredible. He could have easily said, ‘No it’s me, I am the general,’ but no, he didn’t because the team. It was humble greatness.”
They had the hosts first up at Stade de France. But the Pumas had the confidence of having beaten them in Marseille in 2004 and getting to within a point in Paris in 2006.
“We knew how to play France, how to play them mentally in France, and used that to our favour,” Hernandez says. “We didn’t overestimate them or underestimate them. We were just in the moment.”
Argentina won 17-12 and were quickly established as everyone’s second-favourite team, but the group themselves didn’t take stock of what they were achieving; they were too busy riding the wave of momentum.
“I didn’t have time to be happy during matches,” Hernandez says. “That’s something I might regret, maybe. Now I see rugby, maybe I should have enjoyed it more inside me. I was so exigent trying to play at my best every time that I couldn’t enjoy that much.”
He remembers enjoying a couple of Stade Francais matches when they were sweeping all before them in the 2003-04 and 2006-07 seasons, but another occasion where he briefly took stock and smiled mid-match was their third pool stage match against Ireland in Paris, a game where he slotted a trio of drop-goals.
“We put a lot of pressure on them, we were defending and then we were chucking the ball, chucking and chucking, they made a handling error and then we were in their 22. So that was, okay, we are in this game,” Hernandez says. “I remember thinking “yeah, we are here. I’m enjoying this, okay, let’s go on”.”
They managed to see off Scotland in the quarterfinals, but then fell to the eventual winners South Africa in the semifinals. That saw them face France in the third-fourth play-off. France came into it with a bloodied nose, bullish they were going to finish their tournament on a high, having lost their own semifinal to England 14-9.
But it was the Pumas who finished brilliantly. They were outstanding, mixing a rapidly executed set piece, with flowing side-to-side rugby aided by their toolbox of attacking variety. They scored five tries, winning 34-10, but it was their third which encapsulated everything brilliant about this group.
The move started with a break from fullback Corleto who countered off a loose Aurelien Rougerie kick. He attacked into the France half, offloading to Manuel Contepomi, who caught the ball on his fingertips. He recovered his footing to put a basketball pass to lock Albacete. Albacete had Hernandez on his right; the ball moved to the fly-half who spun the most beautiful 30-metre pass off his left hand to second-row Rimas Alvarez Kairelis on the wing. He straightened the line and put Martin Arambaru away, who sidestepped his way over the line.
That pass from Hernandez off his left was the Mona Lisa of that World Cup; a moment so wonderful that you can watch it repeatedly and still it thrills as much as the first time.
This is the art of the playmaker through his eyes. “When you play, the fact that I play in lot of positions gave me, vision for when I came and stood at 10,” Hernandez says.
“What I mean, you go to a first set piece, and you see the ball go wide. When that ruck is about to happen, you are like running towards it, and you see who’s made the tackle — if the fullback is involved, if the wing is covering — that’s the first picture.
“The second picture is how many opponents are on the blind side and how many are next to the ruck. You don’t have time to count, but you glance. So if there are a lot of players on one side, there’s space elsewhere. So in seconds, you have a picture and options in your head and what the structure of the team is.
“But behind you’re continually scanning. Is the fullback deep? Where is the 11? Where is the back-row? You are warned about the players on the other team, where are they, if they kick with their left foot, if they’re a better passer with their right hand, all those things. You have to have that information and learn how to exploit it.”
That pass against France is still in his mind’s eye, recalling his options 16 years on without needing to re-watch the move.
“So in that, in that pass, I knew that the whole team of France was narrow,” Hernandez remembers scientifically. “So, because you count and you see the sequence, we played through the whole team, so when I received the ball, I think Felipe was coming around but the space was outside. There were options on the inside, but outside was better option.
“And the execution, well, that’s just natural.”
There were other box office moments from Hernandez’s career like his banana kick against the All Blacks, the back-of-the-hand pass to Horacio Agulla in a match against Australia.
In the 2015 World Cup he played at inside centre, with Nicolas Sanchez at 10 and Joaquin Tuculet at fullback. It was an emotional tournament for him, he’d had to fight to make it after a host of injuries. So when they managed to defeat Ireland 43-20 in Cardiff in the quarterfinal, those years of frustration released in a moment of raw emotion.
“I was really happy after. I’d missed two years of the Pumas with knee injuries, and I was older at that World Cup, aged 33 years old,” Hernandez remembers. “I’d missed the 2011 World Cup through injury. So at the end of the game, when the referee blew the final whistle, I knew it was my last World Cup and I was crying, emptying myself because it was so hard to be there again.
“We had the opportunity to go to a semifinal, and a step closer to being champion. It was a great moment in the sport for me.”
Argentina would end up losing to Australia in the semifinal. Three years later Hernandez was forced to retire after another knee injury, drawing the curtain on a career bookended by domestic rugby in Argentina.
He started at the Buenos Aires-based Deportivo Francesa, went to Stade Francais, had a spell with the Sharks in Durban, went to Racing Metro and Toulon and finally finished it at the now defunct Argentinean Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares.
He’s kept skin in the game since, as a pundit and rugby analyst for ESPN and Star+. His main job sees him co-own a FinTech company called “Forty”, and then there’s the odd turn as a coach for the youngsters at Deportivo Francesa. The Hernandez blood runs through the club as his older brother Nicolas coaches their first team, but Juan’s involvement is more on an ad hoc basis.
Hernandez doesn’t have any shirts framed from his career. He used to treasure each one, but then his father said, the best way to keep the value of them “is to give them to someone who’ll really appreciate them.” Now he has all the keepsakes stored in a box in his house in Buenos Aires.
A couple of years ago his son started rooting through his dad’s old collection, plucking out the Argentina, Stade Francais and Racing Metro jerseys from his playing days, but also unearthing a stack of jerseys he’d swapped with players he faced.
Just like his dad, Beltran is playing rugby for Deportivo Francesa. Beltran trains in jerseys worn by Damian de Allende, Quade Cooper and Israel Folau. Juan takes a photo of his son and sends it to the player whose jersey is being worn in that specific rough and tumble training session.
“I think that’s the best way to keep that memory alive,” he says.
Hernandez been enthralled by this World Cup. He loved watching his great friend Johnny Sexton with Ireland. He appreciates Dupont.
“He might be one of the best players, the best player of all time,” Hernandez says. “What I’ve heard is he has a really good rugby spirit. He likes to hang with his friends”.
Hernandez feels Manie Libbok could be an even bigger star at the next World Cup. “He can break structures — he’ll be very important, I believe.”
“I love watching rugby, I like to see how, how things are done, you know?” Hernandez says. “People appreciate players like [South Africa’s] Damian Willemse, like I do, and how he manages to get through defences. But I love the other stuff, like good cleaning, technically, you know, anticipation. The speed of a ruck because of what a player has done to be there first.
“I like to go back and watch from a lineout of the scrum, where was that flanker that then he cleaned that ruck. It’s really structured nowadays, that’s why [All Black Damian] Mackenzie or Willemse are different. There aren’t many of them.
“Before it was the prop just pushes, or a lock just gets the ball in the lineout or hits rucks. Now all the players have to know really well what the coach needs, and understand everything about rugby.
“But most important is anticipation. Anticipation nowadays is everything. Anticipation comes from knowledge.”
Hernandez’s loved watching the Pumas continue to surprise and shock by reaching the semifinals, and would love to see them go one step further than any of the nation’s predecessors.
But to do that, they’ll have to get past a player he feels could end up being named best player of the World Cup: Jordie Barrett.
“When they put him at 12 last year, I was talking with one of my colleagues and he said, he will be Player of the Year in 2023 and the MVP of the World Cup if New Zealand are champions. The All Blacks are one team with him, and a completely different one without him. He can do everything, can take the ball to the line, he can tackle, he can kick, he can kick for posts — he’s a player that can do everything.”
Hernandez will be there on Friday in Paris watching the All Blacks take on his Pumas as they aim to win their first World Cup. Either way, a week later Oct. 29, when he’s handed his lifetime achievement award by World Rugby, he will do all he can to deflect praise from himself to the team.
His commonly-used nickname was “El Mago” — The Magician — but that never sat well with Hernandez. The memories everyone else holds close of his talent on the pitch are theirs, but it was never about him. Not according to the man himself, anyway.
“Individual recognition is bizarre in rugby, like when you’re named the player of the season,” Hernandez reiterates. “But when I receive the award, I will say this is because of my team and one specific team: 2007. It’s a team award, it’s a team that means a lot to me, but this award is for everyone that has been a part of my career. It’s for them, this recognition.”