WHILE JOE SCHMIDT has never openly admitted it, his side’s capitulation in the last eight of the World Cup ranks as one of the lowest points of his coaching career — conversely, that day in Cardiff was one of Daniel Hourcade’s finest.
Two years later, the two head coaches meet again in Saturday’s November Test at the Aviva Stadium with their sides in completely different places; Ireland have built up a head of steam and are on a run of six straight wins while Argentina are desperately hoping to end a difficult year on a high note.
Over the course of an exhaustive season, the Pumas have won just twice — against Georgia and Italy — and are operating on autopilot at this stage having clocked up 186,000 kilometres on 50 long-haul flights in the space of 11 draining months.
Something has had to give, and results on the pitch have suffered since that seismic day for Argentine rugby in September 2015.
The establishment of a professional Super Rugby franchise was a step forward for the sport in Argentina, but the decision to change the selection policy has seen them take two steps back in the first half of this World Cup cycle.
“These are political decisions and politics will decide if that changes or not,” Hourcade says, re-emphasising that it’s all out of his control.
“If you see it from the sport side, perhaps it is not ideal to have players playing in Europe and then bringing to play in the Rugby Championship which is a different type of rugby.
“It’s a problem for us. If we have a player playing in a different style of rugby and then you have to bring him back and in three weeks, you have to change the team to play in a different type of rugby. That is really a problem for us. What I really want is to bring them home and for them to play with us for the whole season.”
It means the likes of Juan Imhoff, Facundo Isa and Juan Figallo aren’t considered, while Argentina are also without the talismanic Juan Martin Hernandez on Saturday through injury.
The change in selection policy, one which blocks players based overseas from being eligible for Los Pumas, was brought in after the 2015 World Cup to coincide with the formation of the Jaguares.
In theory, it was introduced to bring, or indeed force, Argentina’s best players to return home from Europe and strengthen the new franchise before their addition to Super Rugby.
In reality, it is an experiment which has reduced the resources available to Hourcade and simply hasn’t worked with the team, based on results alone, in decline over the last 24 months.
Just take their Test record since the World Cup semi-final defeat to Australia as a point in case: played 26, won eight, lost 18.
“We have done many of the objectives we had proposed but there are several ones we haven’t gotten yet,” the head coach continues. “The Jaguares individually have made huge progress but perhaps the reason these haven’t happened yet is because we are playing the top teams in the world.
“Sometimes that progress didn’t appear so frequently because of the quality of the rivals who you are playing against. Obviously we are midway now (in the cycle) and we have a long way to go until the World Cup.”
Hourcade also makes the point that the top teams have figured Argentina out, and there isn’t as much of a surprise element as there was a few years ago: “Probably two years ago you were surprised at the way we started playing. Perhaps nobody expected Argentina to play the way we had done.
“But to the top teams, you only surprise them once. Now it’s harder, that is our challenge.”
One of the other problems for Argentina is the globe-trotting nature of their schedule, with this group of players playing over 30 games together this year between Super Rugby, the Rugby Championship and this European tours.
“That’s probably one of the biggest problems we have,” Hourcade admits.
“Last season we travelled 186,000 km so probably four times around the world. We’re used to that and it is our reality. We want the competition to play week-by-week and that is what we want and we are really happy about that. We have only just started, two seasons, and we only have 34 professional players.
“Our problem is not the amount of players we have, it’s the competition we have. We only have one tournament with one team so few players can develop at the top level. We would be better to be in the northern hemisphere but we are not allowed be there.”
In addition, there’s an ongoing evolution in how they play in order to stay competitive against their SANZAR opponents going forward. The traditional forward-orientated game plan is shifting towards an overall more rounded and free-flowing approach.
“Rugby nowadays demands you to play a different type of rugby than what we used to play in Argentina. We used to play with the forwards, now that’s not enough to win a game.
“And if you consider we play most of the year against southern hemisphere teams, it’s not enough.
“If our competition would have been in the northern hemisphere, then that change would have been a little bit slower. It would not have been necessary to change so quickly. That is the transition we are living nowadays.”
And so to Dublin, and the final game of a difficult season.
Argentina have never beaten Ireland in this city with all six of their wins between the sides coming on home or neutral ground, including three World Cup victories.
Despite everything — the poor run of form, the never-ending season and the exhausting travel — Hourcade says his team are focused and motivated ahead of Saturday.
“The team is really well. It is really motivated. Ireland are a very good team. They have had a very good season and we are really well prepared for this game against Ireland.
“Our minds is focused on playing well. That will be our aim. We are disappointed we didn’t get an important win against any top team so it will be excellent to finish the season with a win against Ireland.”
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