Selection Policy puts Argentina on the back foot

Ramiro Herrera of Argentina. Pic: Dirk Kotze/Gallo Images/Getty
Ramiro Herrera of Argentina. Pic: Dirk Kotze/Gallo Images/Getty
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Argentina are under new management and with Mario Ledesma at the helm they will surely put up a better fight on Saturday than when Scotland ran in six tries against them last June. But the sad truth is that almost all of the Pumas’ best players will be missing at Murrayfield.

All countries have issues with picking players who ply their trade abroad. New Zealand and England won’t consider it. Wales and Ireland will, but only if you have a certain number of caps or you are Johnny Sexton. Scotland and Italy almost encourage at least some of their marquee players to move abroad to help keep a lid on the wage bill back home and leave space for the next generation. It’s a fraught business, no one model can be adopted across all nations, but you have to wonder at the Argentine policy.

The Pumas’ best ever team finished third at the 2007 World Cup, having beaten the French hosts… twice. That team was almost exclusively selected from abroad, largely England and France, but since then Argentina has gained access to the Rugby Championship and Super Rugby via the Jaguares. Until recently there was a strict rule that said no foreign-based players could be selected for the Pumas outside of the World Cup.

Under a new coach that line has been blurred. A few key players were whistled up for this year’s Rugby Championship including props Juan Figallo (for two Tests) and Ramiro Herrera (for another two) who may be the best tighthead in world rugby. He is not available this tour and neither is Saracens’ Figallo, which is a shame.

With 22-year-old tighthead Santiago Medrano anchoring the pack in only his second ever start, the Pumas set scrum, once their weapon of choice, came under severe pressure from Ireland’s excellent front row during last week’s 28-17 loss in Dublin. It may have proved the difference between the two teams.

For this tour Ledesma appears to have gone back to basing his side solely upon the Jaguares, a ploy that almost guarantees failure despite two Championship wins this season. If Scotland struggle when fielding a side comprising players from their two pro teams (as they did against Wales) how can Argentina thrive if they pick from one Super Rugby squad?

Ledesma is no one’s fool. He may be looking at who, among his fringe players, performs on this tour, secure in the knowledge that he can call upon any number of veterans come next year’s World Cup.

One of those is veteran centre Marcelo Bosch who spoke out recently against the Pumas’ unfathomable selection policy.

“It seems that the rule is that the door is open but I don’t really know if the coach can call anyone he wants back. There is a grey area; we need clarification,” said the Saracens man.

“The new board that was elected in February and the ARU had the priority to change the rule and allow the coach to choose his players but nothing changes for the June Tests and the results weren’t good and then there was a change of coach. Ledesma recognised they lacked depth in the front row and I believe the call-up for Juan Figallo was an exception.

“I thought that if results before weren’t good they would call up European players but it didn’t happen in June when there were really poor performances.

“Other countries have made changes to bring back players from Europe and while I could understand the rule that was made after the 2015 World Cup by Argentina to keep young players at home, you could have reached some kind of compromise for those players already in Europe.”

Argentina simply don’t have the strength in depth to ignore their European stars but Ledesma is leaving it late to welcome them back into the fold and integrate them into his systems ahead of next year’s World Cup in Japan. In addition to the missing “magnificent seven” listed above there are numerous squad players who could still wield a shovel. Agen’s Facundo Bosch can, like Fraser Brown, turn out at hooker or flanker. Edinburgh’s centre Juan Pablo Socino has a brother Santiago who is a well-respected hooker at Newcastle Falcons. Patricio Fernandez is a young stand-off at Clermont who could back up Nicolas Sanchez while Castres’ occasional playmaker Benjamin Urdapilleta is at the opposite end of his career.

Oh, and the peerless stand-off Sanchez is joining Stade Francais at the end of the current tour which rather forces Ledesma’s hand in the same way that Johnny Sexton gave Joe Schmidt no option but to pick him out of Racing 92 for two seasons.

“The players in Europe still have a strong desire to play Test rugby,” added Bosch. “There are very good players who could add value to the team and increase competition for places increase the options for the coach.”

The Pumas have been drawn in Pool C for the 2019 World Cup alongside France and England. One of those big three will be heading home after the pool stages and, provided Ledesma picks his strongest side, you really wouldn’t want to bet who.