While many people may have been surprised with the failure of South Africa to beat Argentina in Mendoza, I certainly wasn’t.
Of course history was firmly on the Boks’ side, having won all of their 13 previous encounters. However, if there was a game for the Pumas to really target in the Rugby Championship, it was this one.
South Africa at home is a difficult task for even the All Blacks and the Pumas first outing at Newlands was always going to be tough. A tour of New Zealand and then Australia is also going to be difficult for a team that is not used to the grind of travel, unlike the other three sides who all play in the Super competition.
Even though the last two games are at home, they could also prove difficult as it is likely injuries and fatigue will set in for a side which has never before had to keep such intensity for so long (the World cup by nature isn’t as gruelling as the Ruby Championship). So it made sense to plan an ambush in Mendoza and most would agree the Pumas were unlucky not to have won.
Sure the Boks couldn’t have played much worse, but the intensity of the crowd, the occasion and a well prepared Argentine side with a simple but good game plan, caused an upset draw. Given the result, I was surprised that not more was written about it among the Roar regulars, so I decided to start my ‘Roar career’ writing about the prospects of the Pumas in the Rugby Championship.
While it definitely has given a little more cultural spice to the old tri-nations format, many would doubt the realistic chances of the new team. But there are a few things that the All Blacks and the Wallabies should be wary of before taking on Argentina this year.
Firstly, an important prerequisite of SANZAR for entry was that the best players be available. 23 of the Argentina squad play for French clubs, four in Britain and seven in Argentina. In the past, the Pumas have often presented teams without their best players due to commitments in Europe. Sometimes they have even relied completely on their locally based players, who are still amateur. This side is the best that Argentina can field.
Secondly, the preparation is different. The Pumas are used to being thrown together at the last minute before Test matches (except in World Cup years), because they are scattered throughout the French and British clubs. This year they had weeks together at a training camp in the USA before starting their campaign, so combinations should be much more familiar.
Thirdly, they have something to prove. Being here since 2004, I’ve seen rugby grow as a sport immensely, both in terms of player involvement and media coverage. The team have been very well promoted and I’d go out on a limb to say it has grown to be the second most popular sport in Argentina (of course, to soccer).
The players have a real sense that they are not just representing their country, but the future of rugby in South America. There was a long huddle after the game in Mendoza and some very stern faces, which suggests a very passionate and serious attitude to the opportunity they have until SANZAR reviews the four nation comp (I think in 2015). I wish the Wallabies could show this sort of unity after their performances!
Fourthly, home ground advantage. Due to geography and the European based players (again!), the Pumas rarely hosted full-scale internationals in Argentina. The crowd here are ruthless. Nowhere else in the rugby world have I witnessed the chanting, whistling and sound of horns so loud – during opposition shots at goal. It was enough to put Steyne off in Mendoza so, Dan Carter, be prepared!
Lastly, they have world-class players. While they might not be household names in South Africa, New Zealand or Australia, players such as Hernandez, Roncero, Albacete, Leguizamon and Agulla are all proven and experienced campaigners at the highest level. They form the core that has given other, less experienced players a sense of calm in this toughest of competitions.
So, where to from here? I believe most true rugby supporters would like to see Argentina do well but even the most optimistic Puma fan would struggle to put his hard earned on an upset win in Wellington or La Plata. However a win against a rudderless Wallabies on the Gold Coast and especially Rosario now doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
The stated aim of the impressive no. 8 and captain Fernandez Lobbe was not to be too concerned with the results of their inaugural year of the Rugby Championship, but to ensure that throughout the fixture list they keep on improving, to set a base for what will hopefully be a long involvement in this Southern Hemisphere competition.
Perhaps after their draw with the Springboks, the bar has been raised a little higher than to just be competitive. We may not see an upset win, I’m just saying don’t be too surprised if it happens.
On a side note, anyone planning to visit Argentina for the rugby should research the currency rates. There is an official rate and black market rate for pesos. Rugby has a promising future here, the economy does not!