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Rise of Los Pumas

• Posted in Rugby Union • By JoeBaker

You will struggle to find a more impressive and uplifting sporting rise over the last two decades than that of the Argentinian rugby union team. In that time Los Pumas have developed from a second-tier side regularly acting as cannon fodder to rugby’s big boys, to one of the world’s premier international teams. With the Autumn Internationals approaching, during which time Argentina will play Wales, Scotland and then finally England, now is an ideal time to look at their impressive evolution into a rugby outfit admired for its quality, depth and support.

The most obvious proof of their modern standing in the game has come in recent World Cups. Last year in England they provided some of the most exciting rugby of the whole tournament. They put 40 points past Ireland in a famous quarterfinal victory and were only just prevented a historic final by runners-up Australia. Their group stage performance against New Zealand, which had the All Blacks looking more shaken than at any other point in the tournament, was memorable. Being knocked out in 2011 by the All Blacks was nothing to be ashamed of yet it was four years before then that Argentina first really demonstrated their quality and improvement. In South Africa in 2007 a Felipe Contepomi side beat both France and Ireland to top their group and, despite falling to the hosts and eventual winners in the semi-finals, they thrashed France in the third-place play-off. They became the first team from outside the ‘Six Nations’ or ‘Tri Nations’ competitions to reach the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup – not bad for a team that finished 13th in the inaugural tournament in 1987.

A further sign of the respect they have earnt is their participation in the Rugby Championship, which they were invited to in 2012. An annual tournament contested by the three Southern Hemisphere giants Australia, South Africa and New Zealand simply could not ignore the team emerging in South America any longer. Victories have been hard to come by – just three in five seasons – yet that isn’t really the point. Under the stewardship of Daniel Hourcade they are now competing on a regular basis against some of the world’s best; the Rugby Championship combing with the Autumn Internationals to present them with a competitive calendar season that is bound to enhance them further as a side. Improvements have been clear already, such as during their thrilling 26-24 win this season against the Springboks, despite them losing several key players to injury during the match. The only Spanish speaking nation within the top twenty world rankings, Argentina have become a tough outfit to beat, particularly at home.

Greater exposure to Argentinian rugby in recent years has demonstrated the notable advancements they have made in the way they play the game, culminating in them reaching a high of 5th in the world rankings in November 2015. The predictable team known only for their guile in the scrum and rolling maul and efficient goal-kicking is no more. That traditional set-piece power is now complemented by good offloading, a smart kicking game and the confidence, and ability, to attack from anywhere. The modern-day Argentina is a far more expansive side full of high-risk endeavour, flair, skill and unpredictability. They are clearly a work in progress but theirs is a young team that is only going to get better, being guided by seasoned internationals like Juan Martín Hernández, Juan Manuel Leguizamón and Captain Agustín Creevy.

Furthermore, it is not just in the international arena that impressive strides have been made. This year saw an Argentinian club playing in the famous Super Rugby competition for the first time. The Buenos Aires based Jaguares, who were only founded in 2015 and play their rugby in the 49,540 seater Estadio José Amalfitani stadium, are now coming up against some of the best club teams in the world from New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. They endured a difficult debut season, finishing 13th out of 18 after winning just four of their fifteen matches. However, it has provided an invaluable learning curve for the players, all of whom are Argentinean and many of which are playing for the national team. The style they are encouraged to play and the skills and systems they are coached are exactly the same as the international team. This is also being replicated at under 20 level and in the Argentina “A” team who now play in the newly formed Americas Rugby Championship.

The transition process for players coming through the ranks from club rugby right up to the first international XV has vastly improved, as has the depth of talent that is available for coaches to pick from. Their competitiveness is being helped by an eligibility policy which means that most of their players now play club rugby in Argentina itself. When the Pumas first joined the Rugby Championship, the majority of their players were playing in England and France. One of the vital drivers that has turned Argentina into a global rugby force has been the flourishing grassroots rugby. At present they have 480 amateur clubs, 55,000 registered senior players and 60,000 juniors. To say Argentinian rugby is thriving would be an understatement.

The short-term focus now for Argentina is to continue to further their new, expansive game in fixtures such as the Autumn Internationals and the Rugby Championship and climb the world rankings again to the heady heights they were at last year. In the longer-run, it is to become one of the dominant forces in Southern Hemisphere rugby and reach their first World Cup Final. It is right that they are aiming big. Based on the quick progress they have made in recent years in playing style, tournament results, domestic and grassroots rugby and general popularity, their ambitions could be met a lot faster than you might think. 

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