Rugby Championship: Pumas await the lions’ den
With the dust now settled on the June Internationals, another fascinating subplot on the road to 2015 rears it head. While England, Ireland and Wales have long returned home with excruciating memories of what might have been, their SANZAR conquerors are just getting started. For them comes the climax of a typically titanic Super Rugby campaign, before something even tastier.
Ever since its inception in 1996, the Tri Nations has left our hemisphere in a state of unadulterated awe, the Antipodeans joined by the Springboks in a contest of unparalleled intensity that, by default, signalled the sport’s pace-setters. With South Africa battle-hardened, Australia driven by the brilliance of Will Genia and New Zealand stretching their own outrageous boundaries, this year’s vintage promises more of the same. Well, with one very obvious exception.
The presence of Argentina that marks the inaugural season of The Rugby Championship is very refreshing. However, the perennially plucky underdogs are thrust into a relentless round-robin schedule. The Pumas’ first three Tests among the big boys – against South Africa in Cape Town and Mendoza before a visit to Wellington to face the All Blacks – comprise an intimidating ordeal.
Having said that, they wouldn’t have it any other way. Expect Argentina to embrace opportunity, rather than cower in adversity. Besides, they worked hard to get this far.
The fairytale tournament
Cast your mind back to the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Skippered by scrum-half Agustin Pichot, who combined the roles of graceful playmaker and barking motivator perfectly, Argentina injected the tournament with a true tale of romance. After spoiling the opening-night party with a tense victory over Les Bleus in front of 80,000 at the Stade de France, they put together a string of wins to reach a gloriously unlikely semi-final.
Although at that point the Pumas ran out of steam somewhat, and were comprehensively beaten by eventual champions South Africa, their credentials as a significant international force were impossible to ignore – they simply had to be involved in regular competition. As if to underline such a fact, Pichot’s men destroyed the hosts 34-10 in the third-place play-off.
A golden generation of South American talent – Felipe Contepomi, Juan Martin Hernandez, Rodrigo Roncero, Mario Ledesma, and Lobbe brothers Juan Martin Fernandez and Ignacio Fernandez – had reached their peak. Galvanized by an irrepressible blend of passion, industry and togetherness, they had forged a remarkable team that deserved a reward. However, that is where things stalled.
In the immediate aftermath of the World Cup, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland, France and Portugal offered their services in the hope that the Pumas could join the Six Nations. Even so, the IRB ruled it more logistically viable to include Argentina in the Tri Nations rather than uprooting their base, which would make it very difficult to encourage a home-grown league system. Contractual wrangles with SANZAR over media issues wasted time infuriatingly and though things were eventually finalised, the golden generation inevitably dulled.
Stepping into a veritable lions’ den, Argentina are simply a shadow of their former selves. Pichot, Ledesma and Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe have hung up their boots and Contepomi has rather oddly opted in favour of a full pre-season with his club Stade Francais. Having been dismantled 49-10 at the end of last month by a France side inspired by Luis Picamoles and Maxime Mermoz, the signs are ominous for the Pumas.
Granted, Gallic flair is sometimes irresistible, but the power and accuracy of the southern hemisphere trio of ‘Bad Guys’ (as Sir Clive Woodward called them) is a different proposition altogether. If the All Blacks smell blood, as they did in the third Test against the wounded Irish in Hamilton, things might get messy.
Reasons to be cheerful
Of course, a team including Leicester loose-head Marcos Ayerza, abrasive Bath-bound winger Horacio Agulla and Patricio Albacete – not to mention the mercurial Hernandez – will not roll over. Rather, they will have a very solid set piece, a reliable kicking game and organised, robust backs willing to hit uncomplicated lines. That is a foundation that can take you very far.
Buoyed by what should be a fiercely partisan home crowd, home fixtures will be absolutely crucial for Argentina. A brave showing when the Springboks head over on August 25 and the imagination of a fanatical nation could be captured. Find yourself a video of a Superclásico between River Plate and Boca Juniors to sample sporting fervour at its most vivid. Then dream of Rugby World Cup final in an atmosphere like that. Wow.
The fear, a very rational one, is that the new boys’ lack of depth is exposed mercilessly by pace and skill. I would argue that everyone has to start somewhere. A decade ago, in their second season of Six Nations competition, Italy were mangled at Twickenham to the tune of 80-23 by an England team in their pomp. It was real hide-behind-the-sofa stuff. Nothing of that nature will happen to the Argentineans, and you don’t need to look too far back for evidence.
In October on a misty night at Eden Park, the appropriately-named Marcelo Bosch struck a long-range penalty to bring the Pumas within two points of New Zealand in the World Cup quarter-final. With half an hour to play, the poltergeist of Pichot was in the Auckland air. Now is no time for stage fright. Argentina should only be inspired by opportunity.