Ireland beware as Los Pumas embrace rhythms of own football gods

Argentina team are playing brand of rugby that has Maradona cheering in stands

Argentina stand arm in arm before the game against Namibia. “For them to win,” says journalist Alejo Miranda, “I think they have to have an early lead, like they did for example against South Africa in Durban.” Pphotograph: Jason Cairnduff/Inpho

Argentina stand arm in arm before the game against Namibia. “For them to win,” says journalist Alejo Miranda, “I think they have to have an early lead, like they did for example against South Africa in Durban.” Pphotograph: Jason Cairnduff/Inpho

 

The Pumas are the outstanding success story of world rugby in the professional era. They are also the most improved team in the world over the last four years. Joining the Rugby Championship in 2012 has undoubtedly been a major catalyst, but this is in stark contrast to Italy’s negligible progress since gaining access to the Six Nations in 2000.

Perhaps this says something about the two competitions, as well as Argentinian and Italian rugby.

The good news, or bad news depending on your viewpoint, is that Los Pumas look set to be dining at rugby’s top table for some time to come.

They’ve had some pain along the way. They had remained highly competitive at the 2011 World Cup, losing 13-9 to England before a 13-12 win over Scotland saw them reach the quarter-finals, when they were beaten 33-10 by the hosts New Zealand. But in their first two years in the Rugby Championship, they managed just one draw (against Australia) in a dozen matches.

However, since Daniel Hourcade took over from the strong base left by Santiago Phelan, who called a halt to his five-year tenure in October 2013 (the Pumas won 13, drew one and lost 31 of his 45 games), results have gradually improved.

Last year, Argentina recorded their first win over Australia in 17 years, and this year they beat the Springboks for the first time ever in Durban.

Felipe Contepomi is perhaps still the best overseas’ signing by any of the Irish provinces (admittedly now rivalled by Isa Nacewa) with one former Leinster teammate reiterating this week that he was his favourite player to play alongside. Contepomi is at the World Cup as an analyst with ESPN, and dropped in on the Irish squad this week.

Engaging

Still as engaging as ever, he told The Irish Times that the progress of Los Pumas is “multi-factorial”. While coaching stints with Los Pumas by Fabien Galthie and Graham Henry were contributory factors, he maintained: “It’s more what they have done in the Argentinian Rugby Union.

In 2009 they created several academies around the country, identifying talented young players who learned skills, physical conditioning and diet, so once they reached the national team they had the skills to implement this style of rugby. “You can try to play expansive rugby but if you don’t have the skills you won’t be able to.”

The Unión Argentina de Rugby’s talent identification and feeder system is akin to the IRFU academy, and a couple of times each year, around 60 young players come together under this system.

“The other thing for me, which is very important, was the introduction of the Argentinian team into the Rugby Championship. When you play twice a year against the three best teams in the world home and away, and they show you how to learn the style of rugby they play, you have to get better.

“And the other things is the confidence that Phelan and now Hourcade gave them, and with the input of Galthie and Henry. But it’s not one thing, it’s multi-factorial.”

Contepomi agrees that Argentina now play like France used to do, whereas France play more like England used to do, and the Pumas are less reliant on their mauls, pick-and-goes and their kicking game as they were in his day.

“The rules favour that as well, they favour offence, because World Rugby wants quick rugby and entertainment. And also the skills they learned at a young age helped them to do that. When I was in the Pumas I was never taught how to tackle, how to handle, how to pass. It was in 2009 when we started to develop these things but I was 32 and had already played in three World Cups. The coaches have been learning in other countries so as to bring new ideas and techniques, and once you have the techniques and the skills, then it’s up to the coaches to decide what rugby to play.”

Second Captains

The conveyor belt has reaped a rich harvest already. “I’m not going to say the guys that we all know, like [Juan Martín] Hernández and [Juan Martín Fernández] Lobbe,” says Contepomi. “I’m going to talk about, for example, [Pablo] Matera, and the captain [Agustín] Creevy.

“ We know him but he has really exploded in the last two years, [Nicolás] Sánchez, the two scrumhalves, [Tomás] Cubelli and [Martín] Landajo, excite me. [Santiago] Cordero, [Juan] Imhoff, the fullback [Joaquín] Tuculet. Those guys really excite me.”

The new style also appeals to the Argentinian psyche, according to Landajo. “Football in Argentina is like that [more naturally attacking]. We have the best players in Messi and Maradona. But four years ago Argentina didn’t play rugby like that. But now we’ve tried to change that and do that a bit more. Us Argentinians, we’re Latins, we like to be happy all the time, it’s in our roots and hopefully that shows in our rugby now.”

Sergio Stuart is a colleague of long-standing, who has been covering World Cups for the Olé sports newspaper, where he is editor, since Argentina’s breakthrough tournament of 1999 and concurs with Contepomi about the role of academy.

Stuart points out that seven of the current squad were products of Argentina’s Under-20 World Championship teams in 2012 and 2013. These include Matera, Cordero, Facunda Isa, Julian Montoya and the lock Tomás Lavanini. “If you ask Hourcade which forward has to play, it is Lavanini.”

However, there have been side effects to the improved professionalism and, like Ireland and elsewhere, it has come at the expense of the amateur game.

“There are two types of rugby, and local rugby is dying,” says Stuart. “Why? Because, for example, if a young player is taken by the ARU and the Pumas, he will not play anymore in his club.”

Rejuvenation

The brains behind the rejuvenation of Los Pumas, according to Stuart, is former scrumhalf, Agustín Pichot, well known here after playing against Ireland seven times between 1999 and 2007.

“He is the master. He used to be an officer in the ARU but if you are working in the Argentinian union, you have to wear a tie and go to meetings, and this is a man who has a lot of business interests [such as communication]. He works with the Olympics. For him, it is not necessary to have a title, but everything in Argentinian rugby was built by his brain and every important decision has to be ratified by him.

“For example, Carlos Araujo is the president of the ARU. He is a rich man, but he doesn’t speak English. Hourcade doesn’t speak English. So when someone sits down with the CEOs of the New Zealand, South African and Australian unions, it is Pichot. Pichot also knows everything about rugby and business, and Pichot is the strongman in Argentinian rugby.”

Thanks to Pichot, an important development was the Pampas team that competed in the Vodacom Cup in South Africa from 2010 to 2013. This squad was entirely Argentina-based, and was coached by Hourcade.

Alejo Miranda is one of two rugby writers with La Nación and one of around 90 accredited Argentinian journalists at the World Cup, and says interest has been ratcheted up for the World Cup. Miranda says one of the key differences from Italian rugby is that “Argentina has a tradition of rugby. It has a lot of kids playing rugby. I think that’s the problem in Italy.”

Although rugby is dwarfed by football, the country does have a population of around 35 to 40 million, and an estimated 45,000 people over the age of 15 play rugby in the country.

Next year, Argentina will have their first franchise in Super Rugby, which is likely to be called the Jaguars. For Hernández, returning home to play for the franchise,“will be a dream come true because a lot of players when we left the country it was to play the best rugby we can and to be a part of the national team. I thought if I go overseas to play rugby I would have a better opportunity to play for Argentina. So, now I have no excuses and that is why I am going back. We will have a very good team and it will be a good competition for our senior rugby.”

Others that don’t will still be considered by Hourcade, such as younger players like Imhoff, but for many who stay in European club rugby, this World Cup could mark a swangsong. Into this category fall Lobbe, Ayerza, Bosch and Agulla.

Hourcade is an interesting figure. He had an undistinguished club career as a scrumhalf with Universitario Tucumán. He moved to Europe to start coaching, and coached the Portuguese women’s sevens team. Unbeknownst to even the travelling Argentinian media, he was the assistant coach of the Portugal team at the 2007 World Cup that played the All Blacks in Lyon, where Argentina also played Georgia. “I was at the All Blacks-Portugal game, and nobody knew Hourcade,” says Stuart.

“Hourcade is a keen student of the game,” says Miranda. “He knows the game, he knows the game he wants, but the most important thing is that he has convinced the players to change the mentality to this more offensive approach.

Easy-going

“He is very easy-going and has a good relationship with the players. They lost a few games at the beginning of his time with the international team, but there was real progress, even in the first two games [defeats to England and Wales in November 2013]. You could see the difference, and it’s paying off. You can see that now.”

Hourcade says what he thinks and, preferring the younger products of their new system, is not afraid of making tough calls, such as leaving out the stalwart Toulouse lock Patricio Albacete (after a public falling-out), the Munster prop Eusebio Guiñazú and Julio Farías Cabello.

Reflecting their coach perhaps, Miranda says this current Pumas team are “young but dangerous”, adding: “They are inexperienced. Not many of their players have been in this kind of situation. They have some experience like Lobbe, Hernández, Ayerza, Imhoff – not with the Pumas but with Racing Metro. But I think they are capable of winning because, beginning with Graham Henry, they have improved even more with Hourcade and have a very dangerous offensive game with forwards and backs who are very skilled players.”

Like Stuart, Miranda cites Henry as a key influence in broadening the Pumas’ game. “But for them to win, I think they have to have an early lead, like they did for example against South Africa in Durban,” adds Miranda, in reference to a win which saw Argentina lead from the second minute through a try by Marcelo Bosch until the end, with Imhoff scoring a hat-trick.

“Because I believe that if the game is tight in the end Ireland has more experience. They showed against Italy and France. In the last 20 minutes they owned the game. Maybe Argentina can come from behind, but it hasn’t happened yet. That would be the biggest challenge for me, to be able to play the last 20 minutes of the game with that pressure,” says Miranda, citing the example of Argentina’s opening defeat to the All Blacks.

Repeated sightings of Diego Maradona at their win over Tonga, and of him singing, dancing and cavorting with the Argentinian players in the dressing-room were a huge boon for rugby in Argentina and, of course, further evidence of the country’s extraordinary sense of patriotic fervour they bring to sport and particularly World Cups.

He will not, apparently, be in Cardiff tomorrow, but although one can never set their watch by Maradona, he has vowed to return for the semi-finals if they beat Ireland.

So, while he’s always good value, in Ireland at any rate we’ve no great desire to have any more sightings of him at this World Cup.

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