Argentina still on the rise after a massive year
As the dust settles on an historic year for Argentina rugby that saw their introduction into Super Rugby, Argentina Rugby Union general manager Greg Peters chats to Graham Jenkins about the challenges they have faced on and off the pitch.
“It’s been a massive year,” said Argentina Rugby Union general manager Greg Peters in a break from the Pumas’ end of year campaign that came to a conclusion with a 27-14 defeat to England at Twickenham last weekend.
It was a gusty yet ultimately fruitless performance at English rugby’s HQ that leaves them languishing in 9th in the World Rugby rankings and facing a ‘Pool of Death’ when the battle lines are drawn for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan in May.
The Pumas’ predicament is perhaps understandable when you consider that they have racked up more air miles than any of their rivals this year with Daniel Hourcade’s charges having criss-crossed the globe for both the Jaguares in Super Rugby and also in national colours.
While results on the international stage have not gone that well, except perhaps for a first home win over Rugby Championship rivals South Africa, they have clearly succeeded in their other main goal – justifying their inclusion in the expanded Super Rugby competition.
“The challenge for us this year was Super Rugby,” explained Peters, “and getting them used to the intensity of Super Rugby, week in, week out, when there’s nowhere to hide, when you’ve got to get up each week, no matter what the result was or what happened on or off the pitch.”
They clearly met that challenge to a certain degree with four victories in their inaugural campaign and a 13th place finish overall in the 18-team competition. Average crowds of around 15,000 in a country where local clubs dominate the rugby landscape suggests they are also delivering an attractive product as well.
“The schedule was not something we were used to so we would ebb and flow,” said Peters. “We might win well and then drop one, it’s about that mental approach to the game, to learn that you have to be ready, how the individual prepares himself and the team prepares, how the coaches prepare the team and how you look after the athletes, how you manage all of that in a totally different environment."
“That was hard and then you also have the travel issue, which I have always said is one of the reasons why we’re successful in the southern hemisphere, why we were 1-2-3-4 in the World Cup, because of the adversity we face week in, week out."
“Our closest away game is 14 hours to Auckland. It’s not like jumping on a bus and going down the road. Then you have got to play at altitude in Pretoria or Johannesburg and when you’re together as a team facing all that adversity, you build a bond going through the tough stuff, and we were tested this year, and we learnt a lot which is exactly what we wanted."
“Some pundits tipped us as finalists and one even as winners, but I was always let’s be real here, this is tough and the guys are not used to it, the intensity and the starting as a professional rugby player for club team is different."
“We ended up 13th which was ahead of the Cheetahs, the Reds, Force, Sunwolves and Kings. The Force and Cheetahs have been there 10 years and the Reds 20 years. We also lost four other games by less than five points and two of those we should have closed out but we went missing mentally in the last five minutes. If we’d picked up a couple of those and a couple of other wins we would have been knocking on finals but that’s about where I thought we would be this year.”
However, Peters has seen enough to suggest that the play-offs are a realistic goal for the Raul Perez-coached Jaguares next year.
“Without a doubt,” enthused Peters. “I’m not sure there is a team that doesn’t go into the competition aiming for the play-offs but I think we have got a realistic chance, a much more favourable and balanced draw travel-wise next year and we have eight games at home instead of seven and the additional one is an Australian team. We’ve got a chance.”
That limited success also causes its own problems with the stand out performances of the likes of Facunda Isa attracting the interest of clubs keen to lure him away to Europe.
“In Argentina we face the same challenges as the rest of the southern hemisphere,” said Peters. “We’re paying fair money and it is cheaper to live in Buenos Aires than it is in Paris, but we have a young group and at some stage that group is going to say they want a lifestyle change or I’ve reached the end of my career, I want to go and get my retirement fund sorted, all of those decisions will come to our group as well."
“If you look at the clubs, not every club has a Mourad Boudjellal, there’s only a few. The question of how that effects the international game has to be preeminent for us in the game we all love going forward, because often those people’s interests are centred around their club only. At some stage there needs to be a conversation around the table, with the clubs, about how sustainable this is as a model for rugby.”
Both the Pumas’ and the Jaguares’ performances are largely defined by a limited talent pool and their lofty ambitions may well rest on their ability to identify and develop the next generation of players.
“We’ve only got one professional team so you only have one place you can play those guys outside of international rugby,” said Peters. “We only had 42 contracted players this year and I think we are going to need more going forward. The problem is how we get them game time because the gap between Super Rugby and club rugby in Argentina is massive."
“We had a player, Gonzalo Bertranou, who made his starting debut against the Crusaders, partnered with Juan Martin Hernandez at No.10 for the first time, he was a Tier 3 club player, a good developing talent but there’s that gap, we just don’t have the structure.”
Perhaps just as important as ensuring a deep, highly-skilled and able player pool is the development of equally talented group of coaches who can ensure they reach their potential.
“In New Zealand, you have the All Blacks and five Super Rugby teams, 14 Mitre 10 NPC teams, Heartland teams and the school system all with coaches who have been developed by the best, taught by the best and come through that funnel or perhaps gone overseas."
“We don’t have that ability to call on that pool of coaches because we don’t have the teams. We’ve got clubs, but to take a club coach and make them into a Super Rugby coach or a national team coach overnight? We’ve got the playing talent and we can develop them with good sports science and high performance and strength and conditioning but the question is how you get the coaching up to that level throughout the country so we’re all broadly on the same programme and have got coaches coming to the top who are capable of stepping into the shoes of the guys who are there now?”
“Do we send them overseas? Do we bring outside experts in? In reality, what you need, and what you get in New Zealand, you do a coaching qualification, someone comes and looks at you doing your training and over the next two years someone is monitoring you. It’s about having a system where you have a number of coaches who can make that contribution and input into the game."
“We’ve got wonderful coaches at club level but to bring them to the professional level and coach a professional team week in, week out in the best competitions in the world is a challenge.”
Peters is confident that with legendary Pumas scrum-half and now World Rugby vice chairman Gus Pichot in his corner, anything is possible.
“His capacity to absorb and process and be involved in many things at once is incredible,” said Peters. “He’s a charismatic visionary. You know he gets it because he has been there. I’ve never seen anyone at 42 years of age and fairly recently retired professional player have such an influence like that on the game."
“There’s no one else who could do it and he’s connected into every level, he knows the French clubs, he knows all the power players in one way or another, he knows the players and it comes from his heart and if he says the wrong thing then he doesn’t care.”
While fatigue may have hampered Argentina’s finest this year, it does not appear to be a factor for Peters who is already gearing up for next year.
“I’m looking at how I can bring new ideas as to how we manage the players’ workload, the skill levels we need to improve in both teams, exposing our coaches to new thinking and innovative thinking from other coaches – that is our big work on in terms of the high performance environment.”