Argentina’s rise to fourth in the World Rugby rankings is testament to the benefit of having joined the southern hemisphere championship in 2012.
While Argentina’s requested inclusion in the Six Nations in 2007 and was rejected, this may now be considered a blessing in disguise, as they join three other southern hemisphere nations in the semi-finals of Rugby World Cup 2015.
The Pumas’ inclusion in the Rugby Championship has seen them develop a more expansive game, which may not have occurred had they joined the northern championship.
Lesser teams always benefit the most from playing those stronger than them, provided of course the lessons dished out are taken on board, examined, and measures taken to rectify deficiencies.
This is what happened to Queensland when NSW refused to play them in 1962 on the basis that Queensland was deemed not good enough. In their wisdom, the Queensland hierarchy began playing regular games against New Zealand sides, on both sides of the Tasman, which ultimately saw Queensland being regarded as the preeminent provincial side in world rugby in the early ’80s – they even defeated the All Blacks 9-3 in 1980.
So it is with Argentina. Having only played the top southern hemisphere rugby nations sporadically, the Pumas now get to play them each year. Consequently, the standard of Argentina’s game has improved rapidly. No longer a 10-man side with a scrum and an ace No. 10, the Pumas have developed an expansive 15-man game which enables them to truly compete against, and be considered the equal of, the traditional tier-one nations.
Argentina cannot be taken lightly. They defeated the Springboks 37-25 on South African soil in 2015, defeated Ireland in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals, and ran a dignified second to the All Blacks in their pool match, losing 26-16.
The issue Argentina face is the enormity of the occasion and the chance to create history by moving past the semi-finals into the Rugby World Cup final for the first time.
This can make a team play fanatically, however it can also lead to critical mistakes as emotions prevail over discipline and tactical decision-making.
Scotland’s decision to throw to the back of the lineout against Australia with two minutes on the clock is an example of a stupid decision in the heat of the moment. This cost Scotland a semi-final berth, irrespective of one’s views on the decision by South African referee Craig Joubert to award a subsequent penalty to Australia.
A sensible-thinking leader would have called for a ‘money ball’ throw to the front. Alternatively, a short lineout could have been called, which would have forced the bulk of the Wallaby forward pack from competing at the lineout and back 10 metres.
Of course this is easy to say from the comfort of an armchair, but it displays why cool and intelligent heads are so critical in the cauldron of Test match rugby. One only has to recall the likes of the great Wallaby Number 10. Michael Lynagh, who was so critical to Australia’s success of old, when he called the crucial last play against Ireland in the 1991 World Cup quarter-final to enable the Wallabies to come from behind and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Just as Argentina has learnt from playing the major southern hemisphere rugby nations more regularly, Australia has learnt by seconding 84-Test veteran Argentinian Mario Ledesma as scrum coach.
Argentina has long been recognised as among the best scrummagers in world rugby – I can personally attest to this when they made fools of us in 1981 at Ballymore by demolishing our scrum and justifiably taking out that Test.
However, the Wallabies scrum is vastly improved. While there was a hiccup against Scotland, the Australian scrum has performed extremely well in this World Cup. It will be put to the ultimate test in the semi-final as Argentina’s world-class loosehead prop Marcos Ayerza leads the charge to asset dominance in this area.
Ayerza has the capacity to cause the Wallabies enormous grief if the Wallaby tighthead (and indeed the entire pack) does not get feet and body positioning right.
One only has to think back to Rugby Championship matches over the last couple of years, where Argentina have dominated New Zealand, Australia and South Africa at scrum time.
That said, if Argentina are to defeat Australia, they need more than a dominant scrum and a good goal-kicker. Los Pumas know this and have worked hard at developing and expanding their game over the last few years.
Not only have they started to move the ball along their backline, they have introduced passing the ball ‘out the back’ to a second offensive line, much in the same vein as the Wallabies. Ireland came unstuck as they did not defend against this very well. The Wallabies will need to employ their back three and backrow carefully in defence to ensure their backs are not manipulated as the Irish were.
At critical defensive junctures, the Irish backline was far too narrow and their backrow far too slow. Argentina took full advantage of this as they spread the ball wide.
Australia will not make the same mistake. However, the Wallabies need to significantly improve their defensive line, particularly close to the ruck.
Scottish centre Peter Horne’s try in the quarter-final through the middle of the ruck was embarrassing. Lock Rob Simmons and prop Scott Sio failed to adjust their positions near the ruck and were mere bystanders. This is rugby 101. Wallaby defence coach Nathan Grey must have been tearing his hair out.
The Wallaby forwards also need to quickly push out their defensive line from the inside out and get their spacing right, rather than have players looping around in an attempt to join the line further out wide – as the Irish did to their detriment.
Wallaby tight forwards also need to ensure they are not caught out-wide in the defensive line, as the Argentinian backline will undoubtedly seek to exploit this.
The Wallabies are one of the best defensive sides in the competition. They clearly showed that against Wales with a heroic defensive display, despite having only 13 men on the field.
That is the game the Wallabies need to bring if they are to defeat the high-flying Pumas.