The Rugby Championship Preview: Argentina
Nickname: Los Pumas (The Pumas)
Coach: Santiago Phelan
Ground: Vélez Sársfield (Main Ground)
This is a ground-breaking tournament for Los Pumas: it’s their first real experience outside the Rugby World Cup of serious international tournament rugby. Gone are the days of the Tri-Nations, which has been replaced with four nations and a new name, ‘The Rugby Championship.’
Although the tournament is in its infancy, the same cannot be said of the Argentinian squad – but this ageing side is still blessed with players who have had a lot of exposure to European rugby at the highest level. The experience gained abroad and brought back to Argentina should prove to be invaluable and will be drawn upon to help the younger members of the squad in the heat of the battle in the southern hemisphere. It will still be a steep learning curve, but one that in the long term will definitely help the country’s rugby development.
They have a forward pack that would put any international side under intense pressure at scrum time and in the line out. Their talisman is Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, who – when on song – is able to do superhuman things. Lobbe’s club teammate at Toulon is Jonny Wilkinson, who calls him a “legend within the game, who doesn’t seem to have any real weaknesses.”
With Juan Martín Hernández, they posses another ace in the pack, who can change the game at the flick of the wrists or a kick placed with the accuracy of an Olympic archer. And in Horacio Agulla, who has been wowing audiences in the Aviva Premiership for years, and Juan Jose Imhoff, who took the introduction to world rugby like a duck to water, they posses a potent back line that, with the right service, is bound to cause the old Tri-Nation defences some serious questions.
Argentina’s last competitive match was a humiliating six try to one, 49-10 defeat to France in the Estadio José Fierro in Tucuman. Before the defeat, Phelan alternated his squad to see if some were up to scratch. This proved too much for some and whilst in the immediate it was a heavy defeat, in the long-term it highlighted a worrying deficiency: the real lack of any depth in key positions.
If they were unlucky in the tournament and were to suffer some serious injuries to key figures, Los Pumas could find the Rugby Championship a serious test and by the end, a bit of a slog. They have also already lost the genius of Felipe Contepomi through retirement, whose value over the last decade is immeasurable. It’s no coincidence that his rise to prominence coincided with Argentina’s rise through the IRB World rankings.
Juan Martín Hernández as always will be the lynchpin between the forwards and backs. If he can put them in the right areas, then Argentina may have the opportunity to perform some upsets. Also keep an eye out for Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino at fullback – not always in the XV but when he’s on the pitch, he likes to make an impact.
Too steep a learning curve for anything less than 4th.
By Barnaby Halliday