Rugby Championship preview: Argentina to prop up the table once again despite improvements under Michael Cheika

Colin Newboult

Julian Montoya of Argentina, alongside head coach Michael Cheika and wing Mateo Carreras.

First in our set of previews ahead of the Rugby Championship, we examine the prospects of last year’s fourth-place finishers, Michael Cheika’s Argentina.

Perennial strugglers since their introduction into the competition in 2012, Los Pumas will seek to reverse that trend ahead of the start of the Rugby World Cup which begins in September.

They were a disappointment in Japan in 2019 under Mario Ledesma, and after the legendary hooker failed to reverse their decline, despite a first-ever victory over New Zealand in 2020, the Argentinians looked towards former Australia boss Cheika.

The initial signs were hopeful as a series victory over Scotland was followed by a record triumph at home to Australia and a landmark success over the All Blacks in Christchurch, but the rest of 2022 proved to be mixed.

There is plenty of talent within the squad, but it is still not as strong as their competitors, and it is hard to see them shifting themselves off the bottom of the table.

Last year

After Ledesma’s departure, Cheika took the reins and guided them to a 2-1 series triumph over Scotland, with Emiliano Boffelli proving to be the hero thanks to a try in the final stages of the third Test.

It set them up perfectly for the Rugby Championship three weeks later. Hopes were high as the new head coach helped to address the issues which had plagued their game under Ledesma, but the competition got off to a disappointing start.

Australia were there for the taking, with Dave Rennie a man under pressure, but the visitors went away with a 41-26 victory. Evidently irked by that loss, Argentina played with much more intent in the second fixture and produced a stunning display, going away with a 48-17 win – their largest ever over the Wallabies.

Los Pumas were buoyant, and they would go on to secure arguably the biggest result in their history, a success over the All Blacks in New Zealand. Ian Foster’s men went on to gain their revenge, with the visitors playing like a team who had been celebrating all week, and that was the start of a frustrating run. Successive losses to South Africa then followed as they finished at the bottom of the Rugby Championship.

Although they defeated England at Twickenham, that would be their last win as the South Americans’ Autumn Nations Series campaign culminated in a heavy 52-29 defeat to Scotland at Murrayfield.

This year

Quite frankly, it is hard to see them picking up a positive result from their three games in the competition. Argentina start off with a home match against an improving New Zealand outfit, who head into 2023 unbeaten in seven matches.

There is a thought that Foster will use this clash to play a few fringe members of the squad, something that could open the door for Los Pumas, but it will still be a mighty challenge for the hosts.

From thereon in, they are away from home, heading to an Australian side that will be fascinating to watch under Eddie Jones before facing the behemoths of South Africa. They will do well to get a victory from those matches.

Key players

Much rests on the quality and leadership of captain Julian Montoya. One of the best hookers around since the last Rugby World Cup, he has a genuine claim to be in a World XV. Technically excellent in his core set-piece duties and an absolute menace at the breakdown, the hooker excels in the tighter exchanges. The skipper will once again be absolutely vital if Los Pumas are, at the very least, going to be competitive in the Rugby Championship.

Behind Montoya is Pablo Matera, the former captain who continues to put in world-class displays in the back-row. He shines in most areas, from defence to breakdown and then carrying, so Matera will give them a focal point in the back five of the scrum.

If those two in the pack are playing well then it gives Los Pumas a chance of causing a shock. It will also make it much easier for their backline to operate, where Emiliano Boffelli resides. Like Montoya, the majority of countries would take him in their back three, given his aerial prowess, place-kicking accuracy and ability with ball in hand. Boffelli is not the most elusive runner in the sport, but he is a player whose skills stand out in the Test arena.

Elsewhere in the backline, few are really guaranteed their places, including Santiago Carreras, but the Gloucester playmaker offers both versatility and quality wherever he plays. Carreras has featured plenty at fly-half under Cheika, but he is also a very good full-back and will be a certainty in that 23. Whether he starts or takes his place on the bench due to his ability to cover multiple positions, the 25-year-old will play a significant role for Los Pumas this year.

Players to watch

Set-piece was a surprising weakness under former hooker Ledesma, but Argentina are very close to having a competitive front-row thanks to the emergence of loosehead Thomas Gallo, who is an exciting player. Gallo is outstanding with ball in hand and is fun to watch when he is carrying in space, but he is also developing nicely as a scrummager.

The prop will potentially start alongside Montoya but, equally, he could be used as an impact player. With Ignacio Ruiz, another front-rower with an ability to create holes due to his power and athleticism, those two could dovetail nicely by coming on in the second half. Ruiz disappointingly didn’t get on the field too much for London Irish last season, so that may count against him when it comes to selection for Argentina, but the 22-year-old has the potential to be an excellent hooker.

If Gallo and co. can provide a solid platform, then that will give an opportunity for Juan Martin Gonzalez to roam. One of the breakout stars of 2022, the flanker is wonderful to watch in open field, but he also does the basics well and contributes plenty in the tighter exchanges too.

Behind the scrum, hopefully Mateo Carreras gets a chance to shine following a stunning season for Newcastle Falcons in the Premiership. One of those to prove that size doesn’t matter, his incredible footwork, pace and balance has been terrorising defences all year long. If Los Pumas can get front foot ball or manipulate a situation through their kicking game where Carreras can counter-attack, the lightning wing will be one to watch.

Prospects

Not great once again. For starters, their fixture list is not in their favour, with two away games and their home match a clash against the All Blacks, while they simply don’t have the talent of the other three teams. One victory would be a success, with a second seen as miraculous, but unfortunately another frustrating campaign awaits. Fourth place.

Fixtures

Saturday, July 8 v New Zealand (Estadio Malvinas Argentinas, Mendoza)
Saturday, July 15 v Australia (CommBank Stadium, Sydney)
Saturday, July 29 v South Africa (Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg)

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