Pumas prowl for fresh hunting grounds


Europe could lose many Argentinian players as the Rugby Championship begins to bite, writes GAVIN CUMMISKEY

It is about sustainability now for Argentina. Italy were brought into an expanded Six Nations tournament 12 years ago and have yet to rise above also-ran status. It took France the same length of time to win the old Five Nations outright in 1959, following their re-entry into the championship in 1947.

Argentina, we know, are an entirely different proposition. Irish rugby has been forced to respect them more than any other nation, except maybe France, mainly because they have ruined two Irish World Cup campaigns.

There is no need to revisit that night in Lens (1999) or the 30-15 defeat at Parc des Princes (2007) here.

Granted, in between, we enraged today’s Latin-blooded visitors in Adelaide, at the 2003 World Cup, before Ronan O’Gara’s late drop goal decided matters in a ridiculously heated encounter at Lansdowne Road in 2004.

The rivalry has died down in recent times, with Argentina striking out on a new path this summer. Entry into the old Tri Nations – re-branded The Rugby Championship – may not look so good a return when examining the bottom line: one draw and five defeats.

But the Springboks were lucky to draw in Mendoza, the Wallabies blessed to haul in a 21-5 deficit on the Gold Coast. Perhaps caught up in a wave of nationalistic fever by attempting to go blow for blow with New Zealand in La Plata – in front of a raucous soccer crowd – they were blown away 54-15.

Having battled the best three teams in the world five times over six weeks, they were understandably flagging when a desperate Australia wrapped up a fascinating tournament with a 25-19 victory in Rosario.

The immediate improvement from having a pre-season together and such ferocious competitive action was evident at the Millennium stadium two weeks ago and they troubled France last week before Les Bleus’ excellence came to the fore.

That defeat makes today’s meeting so important. After the longest year in their history they need another scalp to remain a threat to the status of every nation, All Blacks aside, in the current IRB pecking order.

Strength in depth

Their strength in depth is something to be taken very seriously. Take the jewels who have acted as playmakers these past 10 years. Felipe Contepomi is nearing the end of a glorious career, while the brilliant Juan Martin Hernandez has been injured more often than fit since 2010. But a soccer superpower like Argentina will never struggle to produce an heir to the number 10 jersey. Step forward Federico Nicolás Sánchez.

The frontrow has no fears either. The great Rodrigo Roncero – Ronan O’Gara will miss him dearly – followed Mario Ledesma out of the Test arena this summer yet a ready-made replacement, honed by the ABC club in Leicester since 2006, is present in Marcos Ayerza. The 29-year-old has already amassed 39 caps.

The UAR made a huge leap this year, to coincide with entry into the Rugby Championship, by centrally contracting 11 home-based players for the first time. They have another 40 amateurs in a High Performance Academy that provides third level scholarship, financial compensation and access to the training facilities across five regional centres of excellence and the national centre in Buenos Aries.

Seven of the 11 centrally contracted players are on the current tour of Europe. Inevitably, they are being picked off, with big backrower Leonardo Senatore off to Toulon next week after two years playing for the Pampas XV in the Vodafone Cup, South Africa’s second tier provincial competition.

“Some young talents are deciding to stay in Argentina, being involved with the Jaguars (Argentina A) in the Nations Cup and the Churchill Cup or the Pampas in the Vodafone Cup,” said Ayerza. “It also means these young guys are training full time at home throughout the year.

“With the Rugby Championship money the union is able to fund these central contracts. That can work, that is sustainable. You can see the young home-based talent playing well. Look at Tomas De la Vega against France last week making 10 tackles in 30 minutes and he has played only six matches this year for the Pampas but he made a difference.”

The scrumhalf-cum-outhalf Martín Landajo is another elevated from the amateur ranks, via the Pampas, into the toughest rugby environment imaginable. He finished off a thrilling try against the All Blacks.

Their established professionals have been gobbled up by the Top 14 for over a decade but that is changing because French clubs no longer see the value of investing in a player who will be on national duty for the important pre-season months and November.

“Maybe it is time to think that the South(ern Hemisphere) is the best opportunity for us,” said Manuel Carizza when asked what he will do after his short term deal with Racing Metro is most likely not renewed when he goes into Puma camp next summer.

Contract extension

Being an Argentinian prop, however, still gets you a contract extension with the best clubs in Europe, as Ayerza confirmed.

“I have a very good relationship with Leicester. I am staying for three more years. One of the major challenges for a director of rugby like Richard Cockerill is to manage a squad with different nationalities, knowing some are unavailable a the beginning of the year and during the Six Nations provides the opportunity to bring Academy players through.

“Sure, I miss some games but I come back with the experience of scrummaging against New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.”

The uncertainty for other, less specialist players is the main concern and could well see Argentina struggle in the Rugby Championship in the coming years, especially if their best players are tempted to sacrifice international rugby for a decent wage (see the mess Fiji is in).

“We need to see how the next two or three years of transition go for Argentinian players,” Ayerza continued. “Some of them will go down to the Southern Hemisphere and others will remain in Europe. Hopefully European clubs will understand that a young Argentinian player will be unavailable at the start of the season but during the whole winter and Six Nations they will be available when others are away.

“Yes, it will have a massive impact in how Argentina rugby will evolve. If we can keep on developing young talent, and bringing them to a tournament like the Rugby Championship and being allowed have the same number of Test matches as other nations, we can be the best.”

The Super Rugby franchises will not allow a flood of South Americans into their squads so other options must be explored.

“I think England will see the benefit because English clubs clash less with international games than in France,” said Ayerza. “Ireland as well, maybe.”

“Three or four players who are out of contract are already heading back to South Africa having performed well in the Vodafone Cup, Australia as well.

“It will be interesting to see how European clubs cope without Argentinian players. The massive challenge is to have a base of 60 players capable of playing international rugby, not just the 30 odd players who are based in Europe.”

Achieve that and the word Puma will carry the same menace as Springbok or All Black.

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