Rugby Championship preview: Los Pumas to show growth under Michael Cheika but remain at the foot of the table

Dylan Coetzee

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

Los Pumas enter the competition on a positive note after claiming a dramatic 2-1 series win over Scotland thanks to a late Emiliano Boffelli try.

The mid-year series was the perfect preparation for Cheika to integrate his structures and ethos within the side fully. Moreover, it sets up beautifully for Argentina to build towards next year’s World Cup and beyond, with newly-appointed assistant Felipe Contepomi tipped to take over the reins after rugby’s showpiece event.

Cheika’s coaching influence has shown a trend, particularly with the Waratahs and the Wallabies, where both sides performed averagely in the first season but exploded in the second.

It would therefore be expected for Los Pumas to have a ‘developmental’ approach to this year’s Rugby Championship as Cheika aims to test his side against some of the world’s most uncompromising opposition before looking to kick on in France next year.

The mini-tour structure suits Argentina as they welcome the Wallabies for two Tests meaning they would have notched up five consecutive home games – a perfect platform for the team to settle and grow under new leadership.

Despite Cheika calling on his experienced and quality players based around the world, it will still be an uphill battle against their powerful opponents. However, one cannot help but feel that this side has an upset or two in them.

Last year

With the world under siege from the Covid-19 pandemic, Los Pumas were robbed of any home games. Their campaign began with two Tests in South Africa, where Argentina fell short in the opening game, despite a fast start, as the world champions squeezed the side out of the game as the minutes ticked on, sealing a 32-12 triumph.

Their fortunes did not change a week later when the Springboks claimed a 29-10 win in a game where Argentina’s poor discipline did not allow them to make any telling inroads in the game.

The remainder of the competition was held in Australia due to the travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic and began with a double-header against the All Blacks.

It was a horror start for Los Pumas, who were dominated 39-0 by a classy New Zealand on the day, with discipline again a critical downfall for the Argentines. The second Test against the All Blacks saw a notable improvement from Argentina on the field, but ultimately Los Pumas succumbed to a 36-13 loss.

Next were the final two Tests against the Wallabies, who benefitted from an extended stretch of home games and started with a 27-8 win, before the final Test saw Los Pumas produce their best performance of the competition. However, the South Americans still fell to a 32-17 loss against a Wallabies side brimming with confidence, marking the beginning of the end for head coach Mario Ledesma.

This year

Unlike last year’s competition, Los Pumas play three games at home, starting with the Wallabies double-header, which is a massive boost for a team who will need a lot of things to go their way to make any significant progress on the table.

The Wallabies come off a series loss against England but still showed promise and will inevitably be a considerable challenge. Cheika’s knowledge of Australian rugby and the players in the squad will be invaluable.

A double-header away to New Zealand will be extremely difficult, even considering the panic stations in the All Blacks camp. Although they did beat Ian Foster’s men for the first time ever in the 2020 Rugby Championship and several squad members were part of that historic result, it will be a significant test.

Closing the competition off for Los Pumas will be the Springboks home and away. Traditionally, Argentina has achieved their best results against South Africa, but the green engine may be humming by then, making it an even more difficult challenge for the side.

Key players

Skipper Julian Montoya remains crucial for Argentina and has shown his ability throughout the year with Leicester Tigers, playing a significant role in their Premiership title. The robust hooker plays with tremendous passion, is a huge threat at the breakdown and can inspire players around him with his stature. Los Pumas will certainly need every ounce of leadership and playing ability to extract any results from their Rugby Championship campaign.

Another cog in the leadership group who will be critical is Pablo Matera, fresh off a Super Rugby Pacific title with the Crusaders. The dynamic loose forward is one of the best players Argentina have produced and a star that almost invariably impacts a game. However, his discipline has been under the spotlight after a flurry of cards at the Crusaders. The 29-year-old will need to be conscious of this going forward to ensure he can make a telling impact on their campaign.

In the backline, scrum-half Gonzalo Bertranou has been a star for Cheika this year, scoring cheeky tries in and around the ruck against Scotland. Aside from being a predator close to the line, the 28-year-old is an expert at elevating the tempo of the attack at crucial moments. His distribution and playmaking ability from the base will be essential in getting Argentina playing on the front foot against their Southern Hemisphere counterparts.

The hero of the Scotland series, Emiliano Boffelli, is the form player in the squad. His ability to kick out of hand and at goal is a massive asset, whilst his versatility to play across the back three allows Cheika options in the case of injury or suspension. The outside back is playing some of the best rugby of his career, and with his experience at Test level, he will undoubtedly be vital to Argentina’s campaign.

Players to watch

Argentina has produced several impressive flanks in recent times, and one of their latest prospects is Juan Martin Gonzalez, who showed promise against Scotland. The 21-year-old was solid at the breakdown whilst working hard on defence. He is not the perfect star yet, but he has the benefit of learning from compatriots Matera and Facundo Isa, who have proven their worth at Test level.

Behind the scrum, fly-half Santiago Carreras has given Cheika a selection headache at pivot as veteran Nicholas Sanchez returns from injury. Carreras was a shining performer in the Scotland series, showing impressive flair and nous on attack. The playmaker has an innate ability to see space and play teammates or himself into it. However, his most vital attribute may be his versatility as the star can also play across the back three, and Cheika may be tempted to use both playmakers in tandem. A determining factor will likely be the match fitness of Sanchez.

Prospects

There seems to be something brewing in Argentina under Cheika’s tutelage. However, the reality remains that it will be an uphill battle for Los Pumas.

Fortunately, the fixture schedule is more favourable than last year’s campaign, but Argentina still has a long way to go to catch up to their bigger brothers in the Southern Hemisphere. This squad does have the potential to cause an upset, though, and potentially catching the Wallabies cold in the first round is likely their best chance.

Los Pumas will grow and learn throughout the campaign but will not be able to elevate themselves from the foot of the table, despite Cheika’s influence continuing to seep into the team’s ethos.

There is a great energy about Argentina at the moment, and come the 2023 Rugby World Cup, Cheika and his coaching team will likely look back at this year’s Rugby Championship as a critical period of growth and development for a team that could have a strong showing in France. Fourth place.

Fixtures

Saturday, August 6 v Australia (Estadio Malvinas Argentinas)
Saturday, August 13 v Australia (Estadio Bicentenario)
Saturday, August 27 v New Zealand (Orangetheory Stadium)
Saturday, September 3 v New Zealand (FMG Stadium Waikato)
Thursday, September 15 v South Africa (Estádio José Amalfitani)
Saturday, September 24 v South Africa (Kings Park)

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