Now that the 2022 Rugby Championship is wrapped up, we delve into the state of affairs in each of the Southern Hemisphere nations. First up, Argentina.
Los Pumas had their best ever showing in the competition this year under the tutelage of Michael Cheika, who has created a team worth shouting about in South America.
Argentina created history with a 48-17 win against Australia in round two – their biggest against the Wallabies – as well as their first win against the All Blacks on New Zealand soil in the following round.
Cheika’s men were in the title race for a decent period of the tournament showing that Los Pumas are a team to be reckoned with and one that can topple several giants in the game.
The team still has a lot to learn and develop, but they are finally satisfying the vision of development hoped for when Los Pumas joined the Tri-Nations teams to form the Rugby Championship in 2012.
Argentina in 2021 and 2022 are like chalk and cheese, having radically improved under Cheika, but where exactly has the team developed?
The most notable difference is the number of tries and points scored. In this year’s competition, Los Pumas tripled their attacking output scoring 15 tries to the 5 in 2021, taking their tries per game figure from 0.83 to 2.5 in a significant improvement. Similarly, is points scored where the side scored more than double the number of points under Cheika, notching up 143 points to the 60 of 2021.
There was not a great deal of change in the other facets of the game, with small improvements in tackle completion rising 3% this year to 87%. However, Cheika will want that number to be pushed over 90% in 2023.
Discipline remains a core issue for Los Pumas, who give away an average of 14.5 penalties per game, which is still too high and could prevent the team from getting into positions to win the game.
Wing Emiliano Boffelli’s stock in rugby union has shot up tremendously in 2022 after a series of outstanding performances for Argentina that saw him tie the most points scored in the tournament with 71.
Despite scoring key tries in the championship, Boffelli’s real threat is from the kicking tee, where he has clearly established himself as the world’s premier goal-kicker. Not blessed with excessive distance, the Argentine can almost guarantee his captain Julian Montoya three points from anywhere in the opposition’s half.
Opponents are wise to this, of course, and understand they could be punished, making Boffelli extremely valuable to Cheika as Argentina now can use penalties to keep the scoreboard ticking.
South Africa’s Percy Montogomery underlined the value of a highly reliable goal-kicker in a World Cup campaign in the Springboks 2007 triumph, and Boffelli’s accuracy makes Los Pumas a scary prospect in knockout rugby.
The successor for veteran Nicholas Sanchez had been in question for a significant period, with the fly-half still playing decent rugby but moving towards the back end of his career. Enter Santiago Carreras.
Carreras is a utility back, having spent most of his time on the wing or at fullback but made a promising shift to pivot in 2022. The 24-year-old is fearless on attack and showed impressive guile in controlling Argentina’s attacking structures, whether playing someone else in with a pass or searching for defensive weaknesses himself.
The flair-filled playmaker is one of the key reasons for Los Pumas’ dramatic upturn in attacking output. However, Carreras proved he is not one-dimensional by showing impressive game-management, particularly in their win against the All Blacks. Undoubtedly, the star will be the first choice for the World Cup.
Crucial to the fly-half’s success is the experienced duo of Tomas Cubelli and Gonzalo Bertranou, who both have over 40 Test caps. Offering slightly different attributes regarding the speed of play, the two scrum-halves provide security and consistency for Carreras to thrive.
The management and handling of the half-backs have been a masterstroke from Cheika this season.
The engine room
Cheika is blessed with a passionate and physical forward pack willing to put their bodies on the line for each other.
The top four tacklers of the tournament are all from Argentina, led by Marcos Kremer (80), skipper Julian Montoya (67), Tomas Lavanini (66) and Pablo Matera (60), very clearly underlining the commitment of the pack.
The loose trio of Kremer, Matera and rising star Juan Martin Gonzalez looks balanced in terms of what attributes the players offer but also the collective efforts to fulfil their roles. Gonzalez finished the tournament as the second-highest try scorer with four, including an outstanding side-step that left Springbok Wille le Roux on the floor.
In the second-row there is massive experience with Tomas Lavinini, Matias Alemano and Guido Petti, who are all fundamentally brilliant. Although, discipline could be improved by the trio going forward.
Skipper Montoya is a master of the breakdown and powers the pack’s energy. The Leicester Tiger embodies the team’s ethos. He is critical to everything they do, guided by the watchful eye of veteran Augustin Creevy who did the same in his tenure as captain.
Around Montoya in the front-row, Thomas Gallo and Joel Sclavi have shown impressive potential both in broken play and scrum time.
Los Pumas have very quickly become an impressive Test side and are trending perfectly towards the World Cup.
However, the team is not just planning for success under Cheika but has already begun its succession plan beyond next year’s showpiece event. Felipe Contepomi joined the coaching staff after spending several years coaching within Leinster’s structures, and the former fly-half is likely to take charge after the World Cup.
Argentina rugby looks as good as it ever has, considering this team should only improve. The pale blue and white stripes could well trouble some of rugby’s giants in France next year.