Rugby Championship Preview: Argentina.

The Rugby Championships have not been a happy hunting ground for the Argentinean Pumas. In the six years of their participation, they have consistently finished in fourth position, struggling in their first two years, 2012 and 2013, before winning their first game in 2014. They managed the odd win every year in the next three. through to 2016, but in 2017, things went a bit pear-shaped and they were winless, in probably their worst performance in the competition, failing to get within 15 points of their opponents on any occasion.

What are their prospects in this seventh edition of the Southern` Hemisphere’s premier rugby competition?

In the mid-year international season much was expected of the Argentineans as their Super Rugby franchise, the Jaguares, had finally started to play the level of rugby so many had expected from them since they joined the Super Rugby circus. A new coach, Mario Ledesma, had rejuvenated the Jaguares, enforcing disciplines and bringing a focussed style of rugby to the previously wayward Argentineans.

Sadly, the Jaguares form did not translate into anything worthwhile for the national team, despite most of the players simply swapping jerseys from one level of rugby to the next.

The step up from Super Rugby to Test rugby was one too many for most of the team.

The Pumas produced some pretty dire rugby as they bent the knee to both Scotland and Wales when both visiting teams were fielding below strength touring squads.

The poor performances by the national team saw coach Daniel Hourcade throw in the towel and resign his position. This left the Pumas in some disarray as they had to find a new coach some 18 months out from the next Rugby World Cup.

The obvious choice was Mario Ledesma of the Jaguares, and he was duly appointed as head coach. He has a mammoth challenge on his hands.

His work, and success, with the Jaguares will stand in good stead as there is continuity in thinking and coaching methods as the players transition from Super Rugby to Test rugby. This is, perhaps, the best move in the history of Argentinean Rugby. After their dire performances against Wales and Scotland, they have an inspirational and well-salted new coach, and things cannot really get any worse. The only way is up.

There is much hard work to be done.

In years past the Pumas traditionally had a powerful scrum. Their “Bajada” scrumming technique was superb to watch by those aficionados of the front row confrontation. The focus on all the power generated by the entire pack being directed into, and then through their hooker, as an imaginary arrow directed at the centre of their opposition’s scrum, together with a beautifully timed and coordinated push gave their opponents nightmares. They were also masters of the well-timed and coordinated second shove, often spoiling their opponent’s ball at the back of the scrum.

Sadly, this fearsome scrum appears to have been lost in recent years. Perhaps it has been neutered somewhat by the modern “crouch, bind, set” enforced by referees, and the focus on preventing lifting in the scrums, perhaps they have lost the art due to coaching inadequacies? Maybe they have too many of their powerful forwards playing rugby outside Argentina and not available for selection?

Whatever the reason for the lost art of the Bajada scrum,  Ledesma and his forwards will have to improve the scrum quickly or they may have some serious problems in the 2018 Rugby championships.

The Jaguares, and by association the Pumas, build their entire game around an unstructured approach that focusses primarily on counter-attacking in broken play. They prey on the loose ball, looking for the opportunity to take the ball wide at every opportunity. Their hand-to-hand passing and offloading is as good as anyone’s, and they have some quick runners in the midfield and out wide.

Their problem really revolves around the lack of a structured attack off the set-pieces, a prerequisite in successful modern rugby.

They have used their loose-forwards, and the ball-poaching skills of their captain and hooker Augustin Creevy, as the primary source of ball in broken play, which can be a dangerous tactic if they come up against a team that dominates them in the collisions.

The biggest issue for Mario Ledesma and Argentina is that they cannot select overseas-based players for their side. There has been much talk about Argentina allowing foreign based players back into the national side, but it has not happened yet.

This team is missing established Test players such as Marcelo Bosch, Juan Figallo, Juan Imhoff, Facundo Isa, Facundo Bosch, Santiago Cordero, Ramiro Herrera, and Lucas Noguera Paz. Others playing in Europe that would considerably strengthen an Argentine squad include Eduardo Bello, Juan Ignacio Brex, Patricio Fernández, Facundo Gigena, Francisco Gómez Kodela, Axel Müller, Santiago Socino, and Benjamín Urdapilleta.

The missing stars, and the missing up-and-coming players based in Europe also trigger one niggling thought – When a national team gets together to prepare for a Test match campaign, the players usually come from a variety of different clubs, with a variety of game styles, particular strengths and experiences. They gather together to contribute towards the whole, no matter the strength of the clubs and competitions where they usually play the game. There is cross pollination of ideas, there is a merging of skills and talents, and there is a tendency to adopt and use what can be called the best-of-breed. They build a team out of the best parts. A perfect example can be found the Wallabies. Players from the Reds and the Brumbies contribute to the team as much as players from the Waratahs and the Rebels do, and the whole is much stronger than the sum of the parts.

This is not true in the Pumas.

Australia have four Super Rugby teams to select from as well as the Western Force, New Zealand, have five teams, and South Africa, who have four Super Franchises, two Pro 14 teams, and can now select from most of their internationally based players.

The Pumas do not have the luxury of selecting from a multitude of teams, nor can they currently select their internationally based players. They simply have the transition of a team of Jaguares into a team of Pumas.

The question must be asked whether Mario Ledesma can get his Jaguares to make the step up to  Test rugby, after the same players failed to do so under Daniel Hourcade?

The players are used to his methods, but there will be nothing new, no different approach, no new thinking or motivational focus. Having the same squad at both franchise and international level may provide for continuity but it does not seem to offer much more than that.

Prospects:

The Pumas will be targeting at least two home wins, with the Springboks and the Wallabies in their sights.

They might also be looking for a win away from home, again targeting either the Boks or the Aussies.

They have a horrid travel schedule, and a lot of air-miles ahead of them, starting away against South Africa, and then rushing home to play the same opponents a week later. Two fixtures in the Antipodes follow, and then two more at home.

Their form over 2016, 2017 and thus far in 2018 has not been impressive.

Ledesma’s appointment might be a positive  in terms of continuity and player familiarity with his methods and thinking, but it is difficult to see them improving in the short time that he has been involved.

The overall depth and quality of their squad must also be questioned.

Prediction:  Fourth, again.

The Squad:

Forwards: Matias Alemanno, Rodrigo Bruni, Marco Ciccioli, Agustin Creevy, Lucas Favre, Diego Fortuny, Santiago Garcia Botta, Santiago Grondona, Marcos Kremer, Ignacio Larrague, Tomas Lavanini, Juan Manuel Leguizamon, Pablo Matera, Vivas Mayco, Santiago Medrano, Franco Molina, Julian Montoya, Javier Ortega Desio, Guido Petti, Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Juan Zeiss

Backs: Gonzalo Bertranou, Emiliano Boffelli, Sebastian Cancelliere, Tomas Cubelli, Jeronimo de la Fuente, Bautista Delguy, Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, Bautista Ezcurra, Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias, Martin Landajo, Juan Cruz Mallia, Matias Moroni, Ramiro Moyano, Matias Orlando, Nicolas Sanchez

Fixtures:

Saturday, August 18: vs South Africa (away)
Saturday, August 25: vs South Africa (home)
Saturday, September 8: vs New Zealand (away)
Saturday, September 15: vs Australia (away)
Saturday, September 29: vs New Zealand (home)
Saturday, October 6: vs Australia (home)