For years Argentinian rugby waited for the opportunity to be part of an elite competition and finally, in 2012, it happened. The starved rugby fans in our country were able to watch the Pumas playing against the top three ranked teams in the world in the extraordinary Four Nations or Rugby Championship as it is called.
Historically one of the Pumas biggest problems has been time or, rather, a lack of time. With all the players spread throughout Europe and with little cooperation from their clubs, the team would usually assemble on a Monday, run a couple of defence sessions, a little lineout and scrum organization, a couple of patterns, the captain’s run and then we were ready for the kick-off!
Add to this the fact that we only played six games per year and it’s clear that the situation was far from ideal for the growth and development of the Pumas.
But things are changing. It is now four years since the most talented young amateur players in Argentina became part of the Argentina Rugby Union´s new High Performance Programme (known as PLAR). Many of them play, under the name of Pampas, in the Vodacom Cup in South Africa, a tournament that features those players not taking part in Super Rugby.
It might not be an elite tournament, but for our young players it’s a big step up in speed and physicality compared to the amateur local rugby that they play. It allows our local (non European club) players to be more prepared when introduced to international rugby.
Now that we have gone from six international games per year to twelve test matches, we need this extra strength in depth. Before, due to the lack of games, it was difficult to “test” young players. International rugby demands results and so it’s difficult to say “we don’t mind losing, let’s evaluate new players”. If Argentina had taken that attitude we would never have progressed to earning games against the big three.
It’s all different now. With the arrangement between European clubs and the UAR, none of the players under contract to European clubs can play both in the June window and in the Rugby Championship, as June is their compulsory rest period. For that reason, the two upcoming tests against England and the game against Georgia have become both a testing MOMENT for Argentina’s coaches and an opportunity for some players to put up their hand for selection.
The Pumas head coach, Santiago Phelan, has already announced 21 players that will travel in July to Pensacola, USA. This is the refuge where Argentina fine tune their fitness and work on their team bonding. For something to work on the field, there must first be a team outside it.
A squad of 28 players has been named for the June ‘development’ window with a mix of senior and young players. Felipe Contepomi, with 79 tests already to his name, heads the list. Contepomi has already said farewell to European rugby and he is one of the emblems of our rugby. He is joined by World Cup players such as Gonzalo Tiesi (previously with Harlequins, Stade Francaise and London Welsh), back rower Julio Farias (also out of contract with London Welsh) and Nicolas Vergallo who is playing Super Rugby for the Southern Kings.
They will combine with players of limited test and European experience and other local players that have represented The Pampas and will have the chance to play a test match for the first time. Phelan’s plan for these initial three tests is to rotate players and to give an opportunity to all of them. Any one of them can conceivably grab one of the nine remaining spots in the Rugby Championship squad.
The scrum-half position is a good example of this. The three number nines available will all play in the coming month. Vergallo, the most experienced one, has been playing Super Rugby and has already taken part in a World Cup; Landajo made the number nine jersey his own in the last Rugby Championship and scored a fine try against the All Blacks in La Plata; and Tomas Cubelli, the youngest of the three, has been pushing for an opportunity for a long time and will soon be seen in Argentinian colours.
“Watch Eddie Jones ‘Attack from 9’ Now”http://www.therugbysite.com/coaches/18-eddie-jones-videos-and-blog-posts
England come without their British Lions, but arrive in Argentina with a young and quality squad, with players who feature week-in, week-out in the Aviva Premiership and other European competitions. Many of them, such as captain Tom Wood, bring a lot of England experience.
It’s a great opportunity for Argentina. For most of the amateur local players, it will be a big step up from Vodacom Cup to test match rugby. The speed and physicality of the game, the lack of time and space, the demands of error-free rugby will all be part of a very fast learning curve.
The Pumas will look to add options both to their attack, as they’ve been trying to do since Graham Henry’s arrival, and to their famous defence and passionate style of rugby.
Last year they took some steps forward. We hope we can continue on this same positive pathway.
How do you think Los Pumas will fare against a young England side? Comments below…