THE Argentine rugby team are a little like one of those reality shows whereby someone gets a makeover and emerges from the chrysalis unrecognisable; a woman looks ten years younger... you know the type of thing. Well, it has happened with the Pumas who this afternoon enjoy their second World Cup semi-final, an entirely different animal to the one that contested their first in 2007.
Argentine rugby was built on the twin foundations of a rock-solid scrum and a stand-off such as Hugo Porta or Felipe Contepomi who would launch the ball skywards or down town. The outside backs were for chasing the ball and tackling anything that moved in opposition colours. Tries were scored by forwards who would muscle the ball over the line in between milking penalties at the scrum. It was a winning formula, at least up to a point.
The Pumas still do all the above – remember that first scrum against Ireland – but with added extras which have morphed them from a one-dimensional, route-one squad to possibly the most rounded team in this tournament. They have scored more tries in the World Cup than any other side to date with the exception of New Zealand and their surgical dissection of Ireland at the quarter-final stage was a thing of rare beauty. The old Pumas might have panicked when their lead was whittled down from 20-3 to 20-17 early in the second half but this lot are made of stout stuff and finished with a flourish to deny the two-time European champions by an embarrassing 43-20 margin.
So what has changed? What hasn’t? The Pumas’ new coach, Daniel Hourcade, took over from Santiago Phelan in 2013 and started the transformation. Hourcade had 11 of this Argentina squad with him when he coached the Pampas side that competed in South Africa’s Vodacom Cup, winning it in 2012 before switching to the Pacific Challenge competition which they won in 2014 and 2015.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. In only his second match in charge of the national team, Hourcade’s side suffered a 40-6 shellacking at the hands of Wales. But the following year Argentina recorded their first win in the Rugby Championship, over Australia in Mendoza, and followed it up with that 37-25 win over South Africa in Durban just months ago. And all the time, win or lose, Hourcade was inculcating the same adventurous rugby style in the Pumas that had served the Pampas so well.
It’s worth remembering that a move to join the Six Nations post the 2007 Rugby World Cup had been mooted for Argentina but it didn’t happen, for any number of reasons, and they may have dodged a bullet. Instead their acceptance into the South Hemisphere’s party four years later has been the making of them, as defence coach Pablo Bouza claimed last week.
“I do not think we would have made as much progress had we joined the Six Nations, especially in the way our style has developed. the Rugby Championship has been great for us. It was tough at the start but we had to learn.”
Their record in the Championship is a little ordinary, two wins and one draw in a total of 21 matches played, but it has exposed them to the best in the world on a regular basis and that is the only way to improve, as Jim Telfer never tired of telling us.
“Since 2012 we started changing, we started building,” Hourcade said after his team saw off Ireland. “It’s not something that has just started, it goes a long way back, but since that moment it was even more important. Playing the best on a yearly basis requires a level of perfection that makes you get used to it. This kind of game becomes normal, plus we like it. This is how we feel about it and the players like carrying it through.”
There is none so evangelical as the newly converted and everyone in this squad appears to have bought into the new religion even if it preaches the need for 15 true believers rather than 12-man rugby. No one has benefited more than wingers Juan Imhoff and Santiago Cordero who have scored a total of eight World Cup tries between them.
Imhoff is all muscle and attitude, able to break a tackle with a powerful fend and very quick into his running, while Cordero can lay claim to be one of the finds of the tournament – a little man with little legs that move ten to the dozen, like a toy soldier that has been overwound, although the Wallabies will be sure to test his defence, especially in the air.
But the real brains of the operation sits in the midfield where the Pumas have copied New Zealand’s preference for twin playmakers at first and second five eighth, as they call 10 and 12, where Nico Sanchez and Juan Martin Hernandez call the shots. The Argentine fly-half plies his trade at Toulon and he points to the “legend” that is Jonny Wilkinson as his inspiration and he certainly collects points like the Englishman used to.
Going into this weekend Sanchez sat second in the individual points table, behind Scotland’s Greig Laidlaw, and fifth on the list of penalties kicked, also topped by Laidlaw. He won the man-of-the-match award in the last round while kicking 23 points and making ten tackles from ten attempted. His mano-a-mano combat with Australia’s Bernard Foley will go a long way towards deciding this one.
If Sanchez is hogging the headlines his partner Hernandez seems happy to operate in the shadows, less flamboyant than the 2007 model that stunned the rugby world, “El Mago” still produces the odd trick from up his sleeve and perhaps more importantly the veteran offers a constant calming influence on all around him because cool, rational heads are going to be needed this afternoon.
Ahead of this match the proud and passionate Pumas will belt out their national anthem, faces streaming with tears, arms clasped around each other, hearts sewn on to their sleeves. Some things about this team will never change.