Fly-half Nicolas Sanchez cuts loose. David Jones/PA Wire/Press Association Images
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Devil in the detail: Ireland up against new look Pumas this afternoon

Argentina have no trouble scoring tries these days after stepping up to meet improved opposition.

IF A LEOPARD never changes its spots, then what of a Puma?

Okay, so Pumas don’t have spots, but in stark contrast to their footballing counterparts, the arrival of an Argentinian rugby team conjures up the idea of a pragmatic team who will do the basics well, but can provide very little of the spectacular.

The traditional Argentina game was almost exclusively forward-based.

If a match disintegrated to a dour mess, it was job done for them. A victory.

This stereotype is outdated, but not by much.

It cannot be understated how much their participation in the Rugby Championship has helped the Pumas progress and, as Marcos Ayerza puts it, ‘evolve’ into a multi-faceted team rather than a one-trick pony.

“Spending a whole season together: that’s how Argentina is evolving and getting better.” The loose-head prop said this week.

“It’s a learning curve, it’s still all very new and we’re trying to improve every game. But it’s a massive difference (in this) Argentina team coming to Ireland.”

Back row Juan Manuel Leguizamon, in between broad smiles and apologies for his standard of [near flawless] English, expanded on the idea of improving. Alluding to an entirely new ethos being employed under Santiago Phelan.

“I think we are trying to change our system. The attack is now as important as the defence, it has always been like that. But now we are more focused on the attack.

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“We’ve always worked very hard on defence, but now we’re working hard in attack aswell. So, things have been going well for us. We are trying to play more. We are happy with the system and are trying to put it on the pitch.”

These are no mere empty threats.These boys walk the walk too.

In 11 Tests this year – excluding the 150 points racked up against Brazil and Uruguay – Argentina have scored 17 tries. France have rovided the opposition three times and the traditional SANZAR superpowers, twice each. Yet the South Americans have only been prevented from touching down once, in their denut Rugby Championship fixture away to South Africa.

Ireland have played nine Tests in the same period, scoring 15 (that’s 1.66 tries per game versus Argentina’s 1.54) but Ireland’s scoring patterns have been much more erratic. 13 of that try total were scored in the Six Nations – and nine of them were against Italy and Scotland. Take the Azzuri out of the equation and the green strike-rate drops below the Pumas’ 1.3 to 1.25

Good for the soul

Sure, .05 may not be much to get worked up about. Although. crucially, we have been unable to cross the whitewash in three of the last five Tests. And one of the times we have was an intercept try when Fergus McFadden had only to beat Richie McCaw in a straight 80-metre foot race with New Zealand long since out of sight.

From the outside, thousands of miles north east of Buenos Aires, attacking flair would seem to rest more comfortably with the Argentine soul than flawless, disciplined defence… but we’re stereotyping again.

Felipe Contepomi spoke on Off The Ball last week about how the extra time spent together has finally allowed the squad to come together as a unit and, rather than following onto whatever the pack can provide on a given day, work on the intricacies necessary to break down top international defences.

“It’s new for us to be five months together.” Second row Manuel Carizza says to back up his absent centre. “We’re enjoying it a lot. I think the team is learning a lot, we learned a lot during the Rugby Championship, but we’re building a new team so it’s important to us to have a good game on Saturday.”

Tellingly, he added: “We’re trying to work on details, pretty much. When we play the All Blacks, Australia or Springboks; you can see that they beat you in the details. So that’s where we’re trying to improve now.”

This side of the equator, many [fine, this author] scoffed at Graham Henry when he put the feelers out for a job after the World Cup with the proviso that he wasn’t interested in a coaching role, merely a consultancy position. To us, it sounded like a man ready and willing to start phoning it in for double the hourly rate.

Argentina were the side who happily licked their thumb and started counting out the dollars. All three Puma forwards we spoke to this week had nothing short of  glowing reports of the Kiwi’s influence.

“He did a great job and we were very happy to have the opportunity to work with him. He’s a man that understands rugby as few (others do), so we learned a lot from him.” Said Carizza, putting in its place.

Tell us, Juan Martin. Just how expansive is Argentina’s new game-plan? ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Of course, Argentina like every other attacking unit, still must rely on a  flash of brilliance of one or two special players to really break a tough game open. Their resources in this department are growing, but they will have to wait a long time before a player like Juan Martin Hernandez comes around again.

He’s a very important figure to us,” says Ayerza. “Not just because of his game, but because he’s a charismatic player, a leader for us – his contribution towards the game situation and how he speaks. Having him around is very important so that would be a confidence boost for us.

“He’s a quiet man, but when he speaks he knows what he’s doing and what he’s saying. I think he’s a very influential guy to have around and very important for our team.”

Hernandez is one of those guys you just have to stand back, admiring and jealously loathing in equal measure. A natural athlete who appears adept no matter what skill is asked of him. His own uncle said he would currently be playing alongside Lionel Messi had he concentrated on the round ball game.

“He could play any sport.” Smiles Ayerza with a  lingering disbelief. “We see him playing ping-pong in the hotel and he’s brilliant. Very skillful with both hands… and you can see that playing rugby as well.”

Argentina  famously ended the 2007 Rugby World Cup with the message ‘we exist’ delivered with a thud to the IRB’s doorstep. Where would they be if they had been given annual tournament to play in from 2008? Would the Pumas now sit alongside, the Wallabies or the Springboks as one of the world’s best?

“Who knows” Leguizamon says with a smiling shrug.

“It helped a lot, playing against the three best teams in the world. It’s natural, that will make you improve. I don’t know about your question… Probably, yeah.

“But we will never know that.”

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