After a long spell of lobbying, led by Agustin Pichot among others, the Argentinians have finally got what they have deserved for years: regular participation in a major rugby tournament.
They first wanted to take part in the Six Nations but they will finally join the Tri Nations, now renamed The Rugby Championship. This is the second sign of progress and international recognition for the Pumas since the 2007 World Cup, after a selection of their best players playing in Argentina, the Pampas XV, gained the right to take part in the Vodacom Cup from 2010, a tournament they won in 2011 remaining undefeated.
Some of the players revealed in this competition have since joined the ranks of French teams, often with success. This season Argentine leaders have once again tried to expand their pool of players by setting up a B Team, the Jaguars, for the Nations Cup and a C Team in the South American Rugby Championship.
So many players have tasted the elite this season, a significant increase in a country where rugby is still deeply rooted in the tradition of amateurism. While there is talk of a Super Rugby province in Argentina from 2016, rugby clubs in Argentina are still very poorly structured, scattered among provincial championships and tournaments between the top clubs.
The almighty URBA (Union de Rugby de Buenos Aires) has the best clubs but some teams from Rosario, San Miguel de Tucuman and Cordoba stand up to them. The UAR must first find a consistency in its national championships and especially stand up to the powerful and conservative URBA to complete such a project.
But credibility is earned primarily on the ground, so the Pumas will have to shine in this Rugby Championship and the following ones. Players have been gathered together since June for a physical program in Florida and Argentina. They have received counselling from Graham Henry since the June Tests against Italy and France.
It is said that the team is rebuilding itself since the last World Cup but only the charismatic Mario Ledesma and Martin Scelzo have retired. Felipe Contepomi has not been selected this year, but he will be called up for sure in the event of a serious injury. This year Juan Martin Hernandez is the most important player of the team, the one in charge of the attack. Absent from the last World Cup, often injured since 2009 and his spell in South Africa, he returned to his brilliant level last year with the Racing Metro 92.
Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe has also suffered numerous serious injuries in recent years but it now seems physically ready to assume and perform his new role of captain on the field. He will be a strong asset on both offensive and defensive high balls. The power and work rate of Juan Manuel Leguizamon will be missed during the first rounds but he will be fit for the rest of the competition.
Patricio Albacete could be considered as one of the best locks in the world. He is the boss of the Argentinian pack thanks to the experienced he gained with both Toulouse and the Pumas. His complementarity with Manu Carizza is an asset. This tournament will be the last challenge of Rodrigo Roncero, who is retiring to become a dental surgeon. Even if he seems physically burnt, he has an extraordinary mind and is crafty enough to harass and distract any opponent prop, especially during a scrum.
Finally, Juan Imhoff is the first star in the backs since the retirement of Ignacio Corleto. He was one of the few to shine during the Racing Metro 92 crisis last year and was considered as one of the best Top 14 recruits in 2012. Unpredictable, he worked on his skills with the Argentinian Rugby Sevens team.
Marcos Ayerza will soon be freed from the shadow of Rodrigo Roncero. He will get a chance to show his level more regularly on the international stage even if the pair he formed with Martin Castrogiovanni playing for Leicester has been terrific so far. Juan Figallo was the surprise holder of the tighthead prop spot during the last World Cup in place of Martin Scelzo. He must now confirm his promising start.
Agustin Creevy is very convincing with Montpellier and must now forget the presence of Mario Ledesma and become his undisputed successor. The inside centre Santiago Fernandez is complementary with Juan Martin Hernandez and is used to playing an attacking brand of rugby with Montpellier.
Most of the backline players like Martin Rodriguez Gurruchaga, Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino, Horacio Agulla and Martin Bustos Moyano are important players in their respective teams. They can be considered as explosive, good in the kicking game but have gaps in defense.
Finally, the main weaknesses can be found within the locks and the back row where Albacete and Fernandez Lobbe will feel lonely because of the lack of depth. Same with the scrum halves, where Agustin Pichot has never been replaced. Nicolas Vergallo is nothing more than a backup with Toulouse and Martin Landajo is maybe promising but cannot yet be considered an important player.
Like other Latin countries (France and Italy), the Argentines are struggling to adapt to southern hemisphere referees. They had indeed been severely penalized in their quarter-final against the All Blacks during the World Cup.
Unlike the nations of the northern hemisphere, Argentina can play a very attacking game, which should offer interesting games during the Rugby Championship. They are also strong on the static phases, especially the scrum that made their fame for years. Unfortunately the southern referees do not judge the scrum the same way as in the north, and new commands should not make their task easier.
Key strengths of the Argentines will be their mind and their intelligence but their weaknesses are discipline and lack of international experience. It will be a difficult first tournament for the Pumas but they should be able to win at least one game.
HOOKERS: Agustin CREEVY (Montpellier HR – France) / Eusebio GUINAZU (Free) / Bruno POSTIGLIONI (La Plata RC – Argentina)
PROPS: Marcos AYERZA (Leicester Tigers – England) / Juan FIGALLO (Montpellier HR – France) / Juan Pablo ORLANDI (Racing Metro 92 – France) / Rodrigo RONCERO (Free)
LOCKS: Patricio ALBACETE (Stade Toulousain – France) / Manuel CARIZZA (Biarritz Olympique – France) / Juan FARIAS CABELLO (Tucuman Rugby Club – Argentina) / Tomas VALLEJOS CINALLI (Llanelli Scarlets – Wales)
BACKROW: Juan Martin FERNANDEZ LOBBE (RC Toulon – France) / Alvaro GALINDO (Racing Metro 92 – France) / Tomas LEONARDI (San Isidro Club – Argentina) / Leonardo SENATORE (Gimnasia y Esgrima Rosario / Argentina)
SCRUM HALVES: Martin LANDAJO (CA San Isidro – Argentina) / Nicolas VERGALLO (Stade Toulousain – France)
FLY HALVES: Juan Martin HERNANDEZ (Racing Metro 92 – France) / Federico Nicolas SANCHEZ (Bordeaux Bègles – France)
CENTERS: Marcelo BOSCH (Biarritz Olympique – France) / Gonzalo CAMACHO (Exeter Chiefs – England) / Santiago FERNANDEZ (Montpellier HR – France)
WINGS: Martin BUSTOS MOYANO (Montpellier HR – France) / Lucas GONZALEZ AMOROSINO (Montpellier HR – France) / Juan José IMHOFF (Racing Metro 92 – France)
FULLBACKS: Horacio AGULLA (Bath Rugby – England) / Martin RODRIGUEZ GURRUCHAGA (Stade Français – France)
Photos courtesy of UAR