Ahead of the 2018 Rugby Championship, we preview the teams looking to get their hands on the coveted silverware. First up, it is Argentina.
Disappointment has been followed by upheaval with the resignation of Daniel Hourcade and the appointment of Mario Ledesma as head coach. After an unacceptable couple of years under the stewardship of Hourcade, the legendary front-rower has a mammoth challenge on his hands.
Two wins in 18 has seen Los Pumas plummet down the rankings while their June defeats to Wales and Scotland was symptomatic of a side low on confidence and seemingly unsure of their game plan.
Much was expected of the Argentines heading into the mid-year Tests, with the Jaguares enjoying a fine Super Rugby campaign, but those same players were unable to replicate that at international level. The franchise’s former coach, ex-hooker Ledesma, has therefore assumed command of the national team and they will look for a vast improvement on recent displays.
There are questions over the quality of their squad in comparison to the rest of the Rugby Championship teams but, if they can at least claim one win, it will be regarded as progress.
Last year: Following three successive years of claiming a victory in the tournament, Argentina went winless for the first time since 2013. It was arguably their most disappointing performance in the Rugby Championship having failed to get within 15 points of any opponent.
It looked ominous even before they had clashed with the best the southern hemisphere had to offer after suffering a 2-0 series defeat to a second-string England outfit in June. Although they were close in both Tests, the visitors played with more assurance and, in the big moments, often had the edge, leading to a frustrating month for Hourcade’s charges.
Matters failed to improve in August when they succumbed 37-15 to a relatively unconvincing South African side before they lost the reverse fixture 41-23. Los Pumas arguably produced their best display against New Zealand, ‘only’ going down by 17 points, but they followed that up with further defeats to Australia (twice) and the All Blacks.
This year: Argentina will certainly hope that they will be far more competitive this time around, but it very much depends on how much influence Mario Ledesma can have. The players will be used to his methods, having had a good Super Rugby season under his guidance, but you question whether their unique system can work.
Having the same squad at both franchise and international level breeds continuity but does it also hamper them when facing the top countries in the world? Playing for the national team often offers a release for individuals, providing them with a fresh approach away from the potential banality of club rugby, but the Argentinians do not get that.
Certainly, their intensity was lacking in the June series and supporters will hope the so far unsullied Ledesma can bring that passion back to Los Pumas. They will need it if the 2015 World Cup semi-finalists are to claim at least one victory in the Rugby Championship. South Africa probably offers them their best opportunity but the Springboks appear revitalised with Rassie Erasmus at the helm.
Ones to watch: It is hard to look beyond their captain Agustin Creevy and fly-half Nicolas Sanchez, who are crucial to their chances. While Pablo Matera – another key player – skippered the Jaguares during the recent Super Rugby campaign, the hooker has retained the armband for the national team.
Creevy may well be 33 but the front-rower is still playing at a high level and is powerful in both the loose and the tight. If he and Matera can use their athleticism to lay a platform then that will give Sanchez an opportunity to play on the front foot. The fly-half has been in fine form and will look to end his time in Argentina on a high note after signing for Top 14 outfit Stade Francais.
There are also some talented young players coming through and Marcos Kremer established himself as one of the best forwards in Super Rugby. Although his form tailed off slightly towards the end of the campaign, the lock or flanker should be a crucial component in the squad. Behind the scrum, Bautista Delguy transferred from Sevens at the start of the year and was arguably the Jags’ best back in the second half of the Super Rugby season.
Prediction: Ledesma’s appointment is a positive but it is difficult to see them getting the better of their opponents over the next two months. Being competitive would be a start and if they could potentially snatch a win it would represent an excellent return, but even that is doubtful. If they don’t finish bottom, it would be a huge surprise. Fourth.
Saturday, August 18: vs South Africa (away)
Saturday, August 25: vs South Africa (home)
Saturday, September 8: vs New Zealand (away)
Saturday, September 15: vs Australia (away)
Saturday, September 29: vs New Zealand (home)
Saturday, October 6: vs Australia (home)