For decades, the ability of Argentina to compete with the big rugby nations, despite its amateur domestic competition and its isolation from regular international fixtures, was in part admirable and in part enigmatic. Victories against Australia, France, South Africa (albeit under the South American Jaguars moniker), England as well as a 21-21 draw against New Zealand, is testament to Argentina’s ability to consistently punch above their weight. Finally, after a third place in the 2007 Rugby World Cup, and another strong showing at the 2011 event, Argentina were accepted into an expanded Tri Nations (now blandly called the Rugby Championship). Although this development should be celebrated, and hopefully used as a precedent for other emerging nations (Georgia for example), it is still lamentable that this occurred at least a decade later than it should have.
After the most of the so called ‘golden generation’ of Argentinian rugby passed into retirement in the years after the 2007 RWC, there was a real fear that Argentina would slowly retreat back into the rugby abyss. Not only did this prognosis prove to be unfounded – Argentina showed in their first season of the Rugby Championship that they belong in a competition alongside the big three Southern Hemisphere teams – we are perhaps about to witness the emergence of a new golden generation of Argentinian rugby. Make no mistake, youth rugby is booming in Argentina and their performances at the last two Junior World Championships have demonstrated that the talent coming through is on a par with some of the bigger nations. A fourth place finish in 2012 and a sixth place finish in 2013 (suffering a couple of heart-breaking losses on the way vs Wales and France) were good achievements but possibly fell short of the potential of both sides which were loaded with some supreme talent.
Looking at the current Argentinian squad for the Rugby Championship, the average age of the team is nearer to 30 than 20, which means that in the next two seasons some of the young guns are likely to be given more and more opportunities to stake their claim, particularly as the 2015 Rugby World Cup nears. The likes of winger Manuel Montero, props Nahuel Lobo and Matias Diaz, and flanker Facundo Isa will be sure-fire internationals in the near future. However, a golden four of fullback Santiago Cordero, fly half Patricio Fernandez, flanker Pablo Matera, and lock Tomas Lavanini could potentially fire the Pumas to new heights as all four appear genuine world class talents. Indeed, all four have been heavily involved in Argentina’s warm up for the Rugby Championship, with Matera making the squad for the championship.
Santiago Cordero, Fullback, 19 years old
Cordero is simply electric; he combines a nice step with superb high-end speed which has enabled him to consistently trouble opposing teams when given space. His highlight reel has gained popularity based on his ability to open up defences from seemingly anywhere on the field and usually out of nothing. Size is an issue for him, he is only 80-odd kg dripping wet and he has been a defensive liability at times. However, players with this much x-factor are rare (even more so for Argentina); the rewards of his flair and creativity trump any lingering defensive concerns. Having strike weapons is an important component of successful international teams, the kind of players who can on the one hand feast on turnovers from anywhere on the field and on the other hand capitalise on a team’s period of dominance. Cordero looks like a bona fide star in the making, a player who can give Argentina the extra x-factor they have perhaps lacked in the past.
Patricio Fernandez, Fly half, 18 years old
Fernandez is undoubtedly the most exciting prospect currently in Argentinian rugby. He is a once-in-a-generation player for Argentina, a running fly half that blends brilliant instinctive attacking nous with a calm head and a tactically astute game. Fernandez has the speed, elusiveness and try scoring ability that is often associated with outside backs. However, he is also accomplished at the core duties of a 10: his kicking out of hand and goal kicking are generally good while his offensive-marshalling of the back-line has reached a high level already. Fernandez is a multi-faceted player – a precocious talent that is as advanced a player the RR has ever seen at the age of 18. Not only was Fernandez the top points scorer at the Junior World Championships (82 points: 3 tries, 11 conversions, 15 penalties), and one of the youngest players to boot, he was arguably the best player in the tournament – high praise but a phenomenal talent.
Pablo Matera, Flanker, 20 years old
Matera’s inclusion in the Pumas’ Rugby Championship squad caught many by surprise. Yet, anyone who has followed Argentinian domestic rugby over the last 18 months and caught glimpses of the Pumitas play in the last two Junior World Championships will have known for some time that Matera is a special talent. He is an extremely gifted physical specimen; combining great power and ruggedness with speed. He is also tremendously skilled for a forward and is able to shoulder playmaking duties. In the modern age of rugby, loose-forwards that take on greater playmaking duties have proved invaluable; players like Kieran Read, Scott Higginbotham and Argentina’s own Juan Martin Fernandez-Lobbe have excelled internationally in such roles. Matera’s abrasive style and flair for attack (he is also a fine exponent of sevens rugby) will likely see him grow into an important cog in the Pumas’ line-up in the next few years.
Tomas Lavanini, Lock, 20 years old
Lavanini’s stock has risen strongly in 2013 on the back of some impressively destructive performances for Argentina in the South American Championship and for the Pumitas in the Junior World Championship. In fact, his strong form has piqued interest from a number of clubs outside of Argentina, with Super Rugby champions the Chiefs rumoured to be interested in the big man. Lavanini is not as refined a player as the previous three are; his skillset seems more fitting of a lock from pre-2000. However, what is appealing about Lavanini is his jaw-dropping physique and size: 2 metres tall and 120kgs+. As a coach once told me, you can teach many things but you cannot teach size. Lavanini projects to be a beast in the scrum and a clear-out machine at the breakdown. If his ball carrying skills develop then he could well have the sort of impact Bakkies Botha had for the Springboks during the 2000s.