Argentina’s 2013 was horrific, but a brighter future awaits

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With the year coming to an end there are several rugby teams who can look back on 2013 with pride. Argentina’s Pumas, however, will look on it with disdain, probably wishing it never had happened in the first place.

Out of 12 games played, Argentina lost 10 and have won just twice – against Georgia in June at home and recently against Italy at Rome in November.

Moreover, the Pumas lost every game of the 2013 Rugby Championship, including two heavy defeats – 73-13 to South Africa at Soccer City and a heavy 54-17 loss to Australia in Rosario.

In addition, their winless campaign highlighted divisions among the Argentinean squad, as splits occurred within the team.

Those against the then head coach Santiago Phelan did so because of his methods of coaching, while others in the team backed their coach. This led to Phelan’s resignation as head coach of Argentina just a few weeks before the end of year Tests in November.

Despite going through a less than impressive 2013, the future looks considerably bright for Argentina.

Daniel Hourcade, Santiago Phelan’s replacement as head coach, may be unknown to those outside Argentina but the Argentine Rugby Union (UAR) have made a solid appointment. The UAR have invested their faith in Hourcade, giving him a contract to lead the Pumas till the 2015 World Cup.

“By confirming Hourcade until the World Cup it shows support from the union which is vital,” said Paul Tait, an expert on Argentine rugby. “There were many calls to go for a foreigner but with just two years till a World Cup there is not a lot of time to make radical changes.

“Hourcade is someone well known to the players, with most having played under him at one or more of junior level, A level, Sevens or at the Pampas. He also has much more experience than Santiago Phelan and many in Portugal credit him as the reason the Portuguese qualified for 2007 World Cup.”

Along with a new coach, the UAR have developed a long-term plan to improve Argentina from an emergent top tier nation into one of the world’s best teams. The one thing that can make that a reality is to get a team into Super Rugby.

In an interview with an Argentine newspaper, Pumas scrum-half legend Agustin Pichot seemed to indicate the UAR were looking to install policies that confirm Argentina’s desire to have a team in Super Rugby by 2016.

The first policy that Pichot pointed to was Hourcade’s desire to have 60 to 70 percent of his best players available come the June internationals.

In recent years Argentina had to make do with a second-string squad for their June internationals, with their best players recuperating from the end of a long season in the English Premiership, France’s Top 14 or the Celtic/Italian Pro12.

By playing their June games with a weakened squad the Pumas suffered notable defeats, especially against England last June in two games at Salta and Buenos Aires.

With most of Argentina’s top players back it would allow a competitive Pumas side to contest games with a chance of winning. Moreover, it would help them get back up the world rankings, where they are currently sitting in ninth.

The second policy Pichot talked about was the UAR contracting their top players to the union as Australia and New Zealand do.

Argentina’s top players have been told they have until 2015 to finish their careers at professional clubs in Europe. Hence young Argentine players like Pablo Matera are at European clubs to get a taste of European rugby before the 2015 cut-off point.

Their plans of having a Super Rugby team are added credence with the news, which was confirmed by the UAR’s communications manager Guillermo Quevedo, that the UAR were to meet with the SANZAR nations in March with regards to Super Rugby.

Those plans ultimately depend on whether SANZAR will allow an Argentinean team into Super Rugby. Fellow Roarer John Davidson underlined just how important it was for Argentina to have a team.

“It is very vital,” he said. “Super Rugby is the top club rugby competition in the world. No question. The northern hemisphere countries might disagree but you only need to look at the World Cup records or the recent end of year Tests.

“The Argentineans having their players in France or the UK is good, but playing week in and week out against SANZAR teams would be much better.”

Moreover, the UAR seem to have listened to players’ wishes for improved facilities – certainly Patricio Albacete, whose complaints about lack of facilities at home resulted in the UAR stripping him of the vice captaincy – with the opening of a new high performance centre in Buenos Aires.

Tait acknowledges the importance of this.

“Rugby is a complicated sport which requires a high level of investment in order to succeed. Argentina has been in vital need of finding a means of bridging the gap so that Los Pumas can win Rugby Championship matches instead of coming frustratingly close as in Mendoza, Gold Coast and Perth in 2012 and 2013.

“The heavy defeats in 2013 underlined mental frailty, which Hourcade will look to eradicate, but the physical side requires facilities,” Tait continued. “Argentina has spent large sums of money to have training camps in Pensacola, Florida every year top condition players. They have then returned home where such facilities do not exist and have prepared in amateur locations in Buenos Aires.

“The new High Performance Centre will thus be crucial in enabling Argentina to improve its competitiveness.”

With the UAR implementing contracts from 2015 it means their best players will be available to play for an Argentinean team should they be admitted into Super Rugby. When asked how competitive they can be in Super Rugby, Tait seemed positive.

“When looking at the All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies many assume that all Super Rugby teams are strong. Many are, but there are numerous cases every year of there being sub-standard sides.

“In Australia, for instance, the success of the Reds and Brumbies has to be measured against the underachieving Waratahs – also the Force and Rebels who are yet to be genuinely competitive on a regular basis.

“Argentina is looking at having one, or possibly two, Super Rugby franchises for the 2016 season. It has been confirmed by Agustín Pichot that 40 players will be contracted for the squad and that they are to be Test players. Put differently, the same players in the Rugby Championship will be playing Super Rugby.

“Pichot has also said that the UAR will replicate the ARU, NZRU and RFU by only selecting players based at home for international duty. In other words, the big name players will return and in virtually all cases players are contracted until the completion of the 2014-2015 season, meaning they can return to Argentina, prepare for the World Cup and then begin their new careers as Argentine Super Rugby contracted players.

“Suggesting that an Argentine Super Rugby side could win matches is therefore not an exaggeration. To the contrary, there is reason to believe that Argentina could be very competitive due to it concentrating its resources into a small pool of franchises.”

Davidson felt an Argentinean team would take longer to become as competitive as the Reds, Brumbies, Bulls or Blues.

“It could take 10 years,” he said. “The aim will be to get one good team, make it successful and then get another.”

Davidson’s analysis highlights Argentina’s growing number of registered rugby players and the expansion of the game in the country. Around 100,000 are registered and half are under the age of 10, showing there is an abundance of players from the next generation.

When asked if Argentineans could play in Super Rugby for the Australian, New Zealand and South African teams (adding to Matias Diaz for the Highlanders and Manuel Carizza for the Stormers), Davidson did not dismiss the idea.

“Generally each SANZAR country doesn’t have a lot of foreigners in their Super Rugby teams but having Argentineans in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa would be beneficial. There needs to be a trailblazer first who could set the standard and prove the benefit.”

Within Argentina there are several players that could be of interest to Super Rugby teams prior to 2016 or even afterwards. Paul Tait added to their younger players within the youth set-up.

“A lot will change before 2016 and for this reason the players will be very different,” Tait explained. “Over the past two to three years Argentina has improved dramatically at the junior level defeating Australia, France, South Africa and others. But there are many players who are likely to play in Super Rugby and have recently broken into the national squad.”

Back-rower Pablo Matera (who could have gone to the Auckland Blues), tighthead prop Matías Díaz and second-rower Tomás Lavanini emerged in the 2013 Rugby Championship and all now have professional contracts.

Of them Díaz will play Super Rugby in 2014 for the Highlanders while Matera is at Leicester and Lavanini at Racing Métro.

Also in France is back-rower Facundo Isa (at Toulon) who is another 20-year-old of note while fullback Santiago Cordero has been linked to Stade Français and is 19. Cordero has a rare talent as a runner from the deep.

Another player of great potential is fly-half Patricio Fernández who is also 19. They were all at the 2013 Junior World Championship and were captained by Santiago Iglesias Valdes, who at 20 was Argentina’s reserve hooker against England, Wales and Italy last month.

Should a Super Rugby team be in need of players for 2014 then Cordero, Fernández and Iglesias Valdes would all be smart choices.

Also of note and on the market are centres Javier Rojas and Matías Moroni, loosehead prop Nahuel Lobo, back-rower Benjamín Macome, second-rower Matías Alemanno and scrum-halves Martín Landajo and Tomás Cubelli.

Whether the Pumas can utilise the mass potential they have is another matter. But should Argentina get a team into Super Rugby it will signal a new but positive dawn for the country.

Two interesting factors have occurred while writing this feature on Argentina’s future prospects. The first is the rumour that the UAR have approached current Toulon head coach and ex-coach of France Bernard Laporte to take charge of Argentina after the 2015 World Cup.

If true then it will be a shrewd appointment for Laporte and Argentina.

The second is far more significant, just showing the benefits of the Pumas being in the Rugby Championship. Since their introduction in 2012 the UAR have amassed profits of $100 million pesos – $15.5 million in US dollars or AUD$17.4 million.

It is a huge sum generated and helps them try to elevate the game in a country that has several sports – football is the main sport but apart from rugby there is also hockey, basketball and tennis.

The profits are mainly generated via strong attendances for their home games outside of the capital in Mendoza, La Plata and Rosario.

Moreover, good TV ratings for Pumas games in Argentina, and decent ratings for games not involving Argentina, have generated revenue. It certainly helps when such sponsors in Argentina include ESPN.

It is a world away from unions such as the ARU who are losing money and struggling for funds – out of their five Super Rugby teams, only the Queensland Reds have been able to generate a profit for 2013.

So although 2013 has been a disastrous year for the Pumas, the future does bode well.

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