Rugby: Pumas add bite to expanded Tri-Nations championship
ON Saturday afternoon in Cape Town, Pumas skipper Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe will lead Argentina out to face the Springboks for the 14th time.
There is, on the face of it, nothing particularly unusual in that, but this is a match that could change the face of rugby. This is the beginning of the Rugby Championship, the expansion of the Tri-Nations tournament featuring New Zealand, South Africa and Australia to include a fourth member, Argentina.
The following week in Mendoza the fixture will be repeated, with Argentina playing their sixth and final match against the Wallabies in Rosario in the first week of October. Despite the logistical challenges, the Pumas have assembled their strongest side, which includes 22 Europe-based players and four from Argentina, where the game is still amateur. The Argentines have trained together since 1 May, and posted a worryingly lacklustre 25-21 warm-up loss to Stade Francais.
Yet there is widespread excitement among the other three nations at the prospect of playing against the Pumas. The Tri-Nations players are energised by the prospect of a step outside the Super Rugby goldfish bowl, while their fans are licking their lips at the thought of playing a side which have never beaten the Springboks, have just one draw against the All Blacks and which have only beaten the Wallabies once since 1987. The fact that the Pumas have risen to eighth in the world rankings, have a formidable record at home and were quarter-finalists in the 2011 World Cup and third in the 2007 tournament cuts little ice.
“Argentina are a very good rugby side and have been for a long time,” says All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. “People might not know that they have beaten France more times than France have beaten them. Their home record is particularly impressive, not many people go there and win. Their forward pack would be capable of playing any forward pack in the world.
“They actually have some outstanding backs, but it is how they grow their game to bring in both those facets and playing New Zealand, Australia and South Africa is only going to enhance their ability and raise their level. It won’t take much, it will be good for the game and it is certainly going to challenge us. It’s a 15-hour flight to Buenos Aires, a 15-hour time difference and then we have to fly to South Africa to play the Springboks. It will be interesting to see how we cope.”
If that sounds like a coach trying to manage expectations, there’s certainly an element of that. Hansen will also remember the last match between the two sides, the quarter-final of the recent World Cup, when the All Blacks only led the Pumas in Auckland courtesy of several soft penalties until Kieran Read’s try with less than 15 minutes remaining saw the All Blacks pull away to a 33-10 victory that was far less comfortable than the score suggests.
Although the Pumas possess quality backs like Juan Martin Hernandez, their strength is their formidable pack. Coach Santiago Phelan and his players are very realistic, hoping for nothing more than to be genuinely competitive, yet the weakness of the Wallaby pack has them targeting their final game, against Australia in Rosario, as their most likely opportunity for a win. Former World Cup-winning skipper Nick Farr-Jones believes this is not entirely fanciful.
“There’s no doubt that Argentina can beat us because they can beat anyone on their day – and will do so, make no mistake about that,” said Farr-Jones. “In 1986 we were the best team in the world – we had the Grand Slam tour of Europe and won the Bledisloe Cup in New Zealand. But when that team went to Argentina the next year to play two Tests we drew one and were well beaten in the other. Nobody goes to Argentina and finds it easy to win.
“There’s also this perception that they aren’t up to much away from home, but that’s not the case. They are very capable on the road. Just look at the Rugby World Cup, where they’ve beaten France twice, beat Scotland and came very close to beating England. They will tour well. They were caught on the hop by the professional game, but they’re catching up fast. We [Australia] are still ranked second in the world, but our Achilles’ heel has been our scrum, which was the defining moment when we were beaten by England and Scotland. The Pumas will love the chance to have a go at us in the scrum.”
The Argentines have spirit and passion by the bucketload, as they showed back in 1982 when a South American Jaguars side led by Hugo Porta, and the Pumas in all but name, outmuscled and outplayed the Springboks 21-12 in Bloemfontein in one of the greatest rugby games of all time.
The chances are that Argentina will be heavily beaten before they are able to carve out their first Rugby Championship win, with the game in Argentina remaining amateur, and the best young players entering the ARU high performance programme (which is underwritten by £1.3m of IRB money each year) before heading off to make a living in Europe. Ultimately, though, Argentina will gradually become more competitive, paving the way for a professional league in South America and opening the door for other fledgling nations.
“The Argentinians will really add a splash of colour to the tournament, with a lot of Aussies going over to Rosario and finding a city unlike anything they’ve ever experienced,” says Farr-Jones. “But this must also be the start of something bigger. We should be taking this chance to involve any other rugby-playing nations we can, so that we don’t just end up with the same handful of sides capable of winning the World Cup.
“I was a big believer that we should have had a second tier Super 12 so that we could embrace the so-called minnows. They need to be on the big stage if they’re going to develop quickly.”
What a legacy that would be.
ROUND 1: August 18
Wallabies v All Blacks (Sydney, 11.05am)
Springboks v Pumas (Cape Town, 4pm)
ROUND 2: August 25
All Blacks v Wallabies (Auckland, 8.35am)
Pumas v Springboks (Mendoza, 8.10pm)
ROUND 3: September 8
All Blacks v Pumas (Wellington, 8.35am)
Wallabies v Springboks (Perth, 11.35am)
ROUND 4: September 15
All Blacks v Springboks (Dunedin, 8.35am)
Wallabies v Pumas (Gold Coast, 11.05am)
ROUND 5: September 29
Springboks v Wallabies (Pretoria, 4pm)
Pumas v All Blacks (La Plata, 12.10am, Sun)
ROUND 6: October 6
Springboks v All Blacks (Soweto, 4pm)
Pumas v Wallabies (Rosario, 12.10am, Sun)
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