The Jaguares will be seeking a first home win of the season when they take on last year’s finalists the Lions in Buenos Aires on Saturday.
High hopes for the Argentine franchise in 2016 never produced the play-off appearance many predicted on the back of Argentina’s dominant run at the Rugby World Cup, but the early signs in year two are that everything is beginning to click into place for Raul Pérez and his experienced squad.
Even without a high number of important players – Nicolás Sánchez was a welcome returnee last weekend – the Jaguares came away from their two-match tour of South Africa with five points on the table, keeping the pressure on Africa 2 Conference leaders the Lions.
Win on Saturday with a try bonus point and the Jaguares could go top, which would be fair reward for a bright start to the new season where they appear to have more balance in their approach.
The vibrant attacking rugby is still there, and always will be with Joaquín Tuculet and Santiago Cordero sniffing for opportunities from the back, but the Jaguares have made early strides when it comes to their decision-making, not always opting for the ‘Hollywood’ pass when safer, more direct options are available.
Factor in the future returns of Martín Landajo, Juan Manuel Leguizamon, Juan Martín Hernández and so on, and a big year undoubtedly awaits second time around after last year’s false start.
Were the Lions at full strength then they would unquestionably be favourites for Saturday’s game, even away in Argentina, after blowing off the cobwebs in last weekend’s demolition of the Waratahs.
However without a number of key starters the outlook for this fixture changes significantly. Johan Ackermann has opted for youth in his selection, handing starts in the backline to Shaun Reynolds, 21, at fly-half, along with 23-year-old centre Jacques Nel.
The absense of Franco Mostert, Elton Jantjies, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Lionel Mapoe and more is undoubtedly an early setback, handing the advantage to the hosts.
Not that the Lions aren’t capable of a surprise, but nine changes plus a starting debut for tighthead prop Johannes Jonker turns the trip to Argentina into a tough prospect.
The last time these teams met: The Lions opted to send a weakened XV to Argentina and the gamble failed to pay off, as they ended up missing out on topping the overall standings, with potentially a home semi-final and final, by failing to secure the one table point required to finish first in the competition. Scores from Facundo Isa, Matías Alemanno and a Penalty Try plus five Nicolás Sánchez penalties were enough to see the hosts home in a 34-22 win.
Players to watch: Not always the most widely-praised of the Jaguares backline but Matiás Orlando has been outstanding defensively so far this year, with a double-figure tackle count against the Stormers and the ability to crash through defences when called upon. The experienced international could be a game-changer on Saturday. Santiago Cordero has been at his instinctive best so far with two tries last weekend and is expected to deliver again.
As for the Lions there is a first appearance since his switch from the Bulls for second-row Marvin Orie, who caught the eye in Pretoria last season with a number of athletic performances and gets the nod in place of Mostert this Saturday. Kwagga Smith, the former Blitzbokke Sevens operator, can also pose plenty of problems for the Jaguares from the back row.
Team news: Meanwhile Jaguares head coach Raúl Pérez has named an unchanged XV for their Super Rugby game. However, there are two changes on the replacements bench as back-row Javier Ortega Desio and fly-half or centre Juan Martín Hernández replace Benjamín Macome and Santiago González Iglesias respectively.
Marvin Orie will make his debut for the Lions when they take on the Jaguares in Buenos Aires on Saturday. Shaun Reynolds will also make his first start in Super Rugby at fly-half while Johannes Jonker makes his run-on debut at tighthead prop. The team shows nine changes to the side that started against the Waratahs and one positional change with Harold Vorster moving from 13 to 12. In other backline news Anthony Volmink will start on the wing while Jacques Nel starts at outside centre and Jaco van der Walt replaces Andries Coetzee at full-back with Coetzee dropping to the bench. In the forwards Ruan Ackermann is replaced by Cyle Brink in the seven jersey and Kwagga Smith will start at six at the expense of Jaco Kriel. Orie comes in place of Franco Mostert and in the front row Jonker and Dylan Smith replaces Ruan Dreyer and Jacques Van Rooyen.
Form: This will be the third meeting between these sides, both fixtures last season were won by the home side on the day. The Jaguares won their last home game against the Lions but have not won back-to-back home games in Super Rugby so far.
The Lions have lost their last three away trips outside of South Africa, including last year’s Final; this comes after a run of four wins in a row in such fixtures, their best ever run outside of the country.
The Lions have won 34 lineouts (including steals) across the opening fortnight, more than any other team in the competition. The Jaguares have conceded 26 turnovers in their opening two games, no team has conceded fewer (level with the Brumbies).
Prediction: Much the same is expected as last year when a weakened Lions XV turned up at Velez Sarsfield. Jaguares by 10.
2016: Jaguares won 34-22 in Buenos Aires
2016: Lions won 52-24 in Johannesburg
Jaguares: 15 Joaquín Tuculet, 14 Ramiro Moyano, 13 Matías Orlando, 12 Jerónimo de la Fuente, 11 Santiago Cordero, 10 Nicolás Sánchez, 9 Gonzalo Bertranou, 8 Leonardo Senatore, 7 Tomás Lezana, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Matías Alemanno, 4 Guido Petti, 3 Felipe Arregui, 2 Agustín Creevy (c), 1 Santiago García Botta
Replacements: 16 Julián Montoya, 17 Lucas Noguera Paz, 18 Cristian Bartoloni, 19 Marcos Kremer, 20 Javier Ortega Desio, 21 Felipe Ezcurra, 22 Juan Martín Hernández, 23 Matías Moroni
Lions: 15 Jaco van der Walt, 14 Courtnall Skosan, 13 Jacques Nel, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Anthony Volmink, 10 Shaun Reynolds, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Cyle Brink, 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Johannes Jonker, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Dylan Smith
Replacments: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Jacques van Rooyen, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Jaco Kriel, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Andries Coetzee, 23 Sylvian Mahuza
Date: Saturday, March 11
Venue: Velez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires
Kick-off: 16:40 local (19:40 GMT)
Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Paul Williams (New Zealand), Damian Schneider (Argentina)
TMO: Santiago Borsani (Argentina)