Ahead of the upcoming three-Test series between Argentina and Scotland, we pick out five storylines to follow over the next month.
Gregor Townsend has named a weaker squad, missing big names such as Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg, while Michael Cheika has gone all-guns blazing in order to prepare for the Rugby Championship against Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Before this intriguing match-up takes place, here are Planet Rugby’s key talking points for the series.
First look at Michael Cheika’s Argentina
Saturday, July 2 will give us our first look at Cheika’s vision for Argentina with the World Cup just a year away. Although no one is expecting miracles, just how far can the Australian advance the national team in such a short window? Well, this summer will give a good indicator of that as Los Pumas are set to play nine Test matches between now and the end of September.
The first big decision on Cheika’s hands in terms of squad selection comes at the fly-half position with three names in the hat. Benjamín Urdapilleta, 36, has gone from strength to strength with Castres this year, helping the team to the Top 14 final where his side lost after he left the field early on with a muscular injury – due to this we may see little to no of the number 10.
Name number two is another Puma who plays his club rugby in France, Nicolas Sanchez. The Stade Francais fly-half has struggled to find form as of late, winning just four of the 17 games he has featured in this season across all competitions. That being said, Sanchez was the man who engineered Argentina’s historic first Test victory over the All Blacks in 2020 in which he scored 25 points.
Finally, Gloucester utility back Santiago Carreras will be keen to keep hold of the 10 jersey he held for three games in the autumn, despite playing no games at fly-half for his club. Carreras will likely arrive at camp in need of an adjustment period before retaking the helm of the Argentine offence. Unless Urdapilleta is healthy, expect Sanchez to start.
Scottish spots up for grabs
Now just eight wins away from being the most successful coach in Scottish Rugby history, Townsend has opted to rest Russell, Hogg and Chris Harris as the 2023 Rugby World Cup looms in a bid to experiment with other young talents. Initially Adam Hastings was the man backed to receive more playing time in the 10 jersey with Russell absent, however a hamstring injury has caused the Gloucester fly-half to withdraw from the tour. This has left room for Blair Kinghorn and the newly-called up Ross Thompson to make a name for themselves where Russell would normally stand, marshalling the Scottish attack.
After showing moments of brilliance as a replacement during the 2022 Six Nations campaign, Ben White will surely now be breathing down Ali Price’s neck in competition for the starting scrum-half job. Price has struggled to provide anything above and beyond in his service for Scotland for a while, save an outstanding outing against Italy earlier this year, meaning Townsend may be looking to evaluate White’s suitability for the role closer.
Argentina will provide a perfect low-stakes opportunity for Townsend to allow the pair to do-battle for the nine jersey going forward into the Autumn Nations Series, Six Nations and ultimately the World Cup.
Along with White, flanker Rory Darge will look to assert himself as a Scottish regular on this tour having won a starting spot in the six jersey in the latter Six Nations games. The Glasgow loose-forward has Sam Skinner, Magnus Bradbury, Andy Christie and Ben Muncaster to beat out for the job with Jamie Ritchie missing. The vicious flanker impressed earlier this year already so surely a couple more solid outings will be enough to firmly solidify himself in Townsend’s plans?
Battle of the Premiership hookers
My word do Argentina have a fantastic choice of hookers. Both Julian Montoya (Leicester) and Agustin Creevy (London Irish) have been in fine form this season, leaving Cheika with a very tough decision.
As captain, Montoya will almost certainly start the series in the two jersey, but there is a bigger picture to look at with Argentina as they have a rigorous summer of Rugby Championship action ahead of them. Creevy, a try-machine over in Brentford, will be hungry to make an impact as the ex-captain has been absent from the national set-up since 2019. Now is his chance to prove that this omission was a mistake.
The rutting of heads between present captain and ex-captain for the bulk of minutes at hooker should prove to be an awesome storyline to follow both in this Test series and going forward to the Rugby Championship.
Escape from perennial mediocrity
Though they may have rescued themselves from complete international irrelevance, Scotland are still a nation that few take seriously on the global stage. Their record in the Six Nations has been far from impressive and their last World Cup campaign was ended by the hosts, Japan, in the pool stage for the second time in three tournaments.
The resting of the aforementioned big names will not only allow Townsend to futureproof the roster, but explore the talents of lesser-known names such as Muncaster for immediate usages should he see fit. The fact is that for Scotland another finish outside of the top three in the Six Nations next year will not bode well going into France 2023 so changes need to be made.
If Townsend and co. can return home to Scotland victorious, it will mean that the experiment has paid off and that there is potential for Scottish success as they would have done this without Russell, Hogg, Harris and Ritchie.
Think of this series as a quest to prove and create self-worth for Scotland, who will be aiming for at least a quarter-final in the World Cup.
The search for ball carriers
Strong ball carrying is fundamental in modern rugby regardless of the side’s attacking structure, and Scotland has struggled at times this year with consistently getting over the gain-line. However, some players within their ranks could adequately fulfil the role. Prop Pierre Schoeman has enjoyed a tremendous season and is an established Test player who can be trusted to carry the ball hard and concisely throughout the game. The feeling around the South African-born prop is that he will only continue to improve as he settles further into his Test career.
Number eight Bradbury boasted decent carry numbers in the United Rugby Championship, making 63 successful carries in the campaign. Despite not ranking in the top 20 carriers, Bradbury has the potential to fulfil this role within the loose trio, and his work rate will complement the role should Townsend use him in that way.
Glasgow Warriors centre Sione Tuipulotu should be used as the midfield battering ram as his size and robust nature lend himself to. The centre also made 63 successful carries and will be a menace in the midfield. However, Edinburgh star Mark Bennett has also shown form with ball in hand this season. Townsend could consider moving Tuipulotu into the 12 channel to produce a go-forward centre pairing.
It remains to be seen exactly how Townsend will approach the ball-carrying concern. However, there are options for Scotland to find a solution. A Test series in Argentina is a perfect platform to grow the players and the team culture. It will be fascinating to see how it unfolds for Townsend’s men.