Argentina's pride now matched by attacking ambition
On Rugby:Those dastardly Pumas are back and while the nasty edge may have dissipated in recent times, once more there’s plenty on the line for an 18th meeting overall and 10th since 1999. But they also have way more arrows in their quiver than in their last two visits. And they’re sharper too.
In 2008, the absence of Felipe Contepomi was compounded when Juan Martin Hernandez was ruled out in the warm-up, in a grim 17-3 defeat, and though Dr Phil returned two years ago they didn’t show much more ambition when beaten 29-9 that day.
The biggest single difference of course, is that these Pumas are evidently already feeling the positive impact from competing in the Rugby Championship for the first time. Where before they have arrived in Dublin for the final leg of their November tour with, at most, five friendlies under their belt in the calendar year, they arrived this week having played 11 Tests since the beginning of June. What’s more, those additional six games were competitive matches against the top three sides in the world. Having beaten Italy and France at home before Les Bleus gained handsome revenge in Tucuman a week later, Argentina were competitive in all of their six games in the Championship. As eye-catching as anything was how previously unheard of domestic part-time players rose to the challenge.
Their production line of players, without a professional game of their own, is remarkable. Only a chargedown try by Francois Steyn cost them an historic victory in their first home game, a 16-16 draw with the Springboks, and they let slip a 19-6 lead in losing to the Wallabies on the Gold Coast. Strictly on a formbook through South Africa and New Zealand especially, Argentina would possibly be entitled to start favourites on Saturday rather than five point underdogs. After all, they were 11-point underdogs when beating Wales a fortnight ago.
The benefits of competing in the Championship were highly evident that day, and afterwards head coach Santiago Phelan repeatedly cited his team’s greater familiarity with the intensity generated from playing the world’s top three sides.
That game also highlighted the positive impact of Graham Henry’s increased involvement with the players as well as the coaches, witness the second-half double whammy which effectively earned them their 26-12 win over Wales. For the first, Juan Manuel Leguizamon and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe attacked the outside centre channel and offloaded out of the tackle in turn for winger Juan Imhoff to cut through and swerve around Leigh Halfpenny. They also used the full width of the pitch for the try by Gonzalo Camacho which followed soon after.
It’s highly doubtful whether such tries would have been in their attacking repertoire on their last visits here, and Argentinian journalists confirm as much.
Granted, they were beaten 39-22 by France in Lille on Saturday, but Los Pumas were as spirited as ever, taking an early 13-3 lead, before being submerged by three stunning first-half tries. It’s also worth noting that France are the only side to have beaten any of the Southern Hemisphere quartet or Samoa over the last two weeks.
With their entry into the Championship has come teething problems, namely having a mostly European-based squad with a Southern Hemisphere Test itinerary. As Ulster can testify in the case of Ruan Pienaar, this undermines their value for their club employers.
Not alone are they gone for the entire pre-season and early-season, but no sooner do they return than their country needs them for three or four more consecutive Test matches in November. Aside from their reduced availability, such a treadmill raises the heightened risk of burn-out or injury unless the clubs factor in a mid-season rest.
A dozen of Argentina’s initial 29-man squad for this tour are based in France, with a further three in England, and Phelan has been juggling his resources due to an agreement with the French clubs to limit their involvement. After Patricio Albacete was ruled out through injury, so it was that the Biarritz pair of centre Marcelo Bosch and prop Francisco Gomez-Kodela, Montpellier fullback Lucas Gonzalez Amorisino and Stade Francais lock Nahuel Lobo were only called up last week in light of injuries.
The problem is particularly acute at Montpellier, where Fabien Galthie has swelled the club’s Argentinian contingent to seven and the two parties agreed that no more than two Montpellier players could be released on any given week this month. Hence, Amorisino and their influential young tighthead Juan Figallo returned to Montpellier this week, in exchange for club team-mates Maximiliano Bustos and the aforementioned Fernandez. The contracts for six of Montpellier’s Argentinians finish next June, and it will be interesting to see how this problem is resolved. At any rate, it seems highly unlikely that all of them will remain with the club and, indeed, that French clubs will question the value of frontline Pumas.
The Argentinian Rugby Union have requested that they have a franchise admitted to the Super 15 in 2016, but there is no guarantee that this will come to pass. There may be a trickle to other Super 15 franchises, but in the interim there seems no obvious solution to the dilemma.
No doubt it will not prevent Los Pumas from climbing onwards and upwards. This remarkably rugby, and indeed sporting, nation have overcome bigger obstacles in the past. What odds before they ensure a Southern Hemisphere clean sweep of the world’s top four in the rankings?