Beating Ireland would be the latest mark of Argentinian rugby growth

The Rugby Championship, academies, Vodacom Cup and now Super Rugby – quite a journey.

Murray Kinsella reports from the Vale Resort

SUNDAY COULD BE a momentous day for Argentinian rugby, the latest stride in the development of the sport in a land where football still rules.

The Pumas have, of course, been in a World Cup semi-final before. Indeed, they ended that 2007 tournament in third place, but it almost feels like repeating the feat would be even sweeter this time around.

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2015 - Pool C - Argentina v Namibia - Leicester City Stadium Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe celebrates the win over Namibia. Source: Mike Egerton

There have been huge efforts to ensure Argentinian rugby has progressed in recent years and the sense of pride in the improvement was steadfast when speaking to members of their World Cup squad this week in the build-up to Sunday’s meeting with Ireland.

Convincing SANZAR to accept them into the Rugby Championship in 2012 was a pivotal moment for the Pumas, providing the type of regular top-tier competition that had been a dream beforehand.

“Before, we had six matches a year, three in June and three in November,” says assistant coach Pablo Bouza, who won 37 caps for the Pumas as a lock or back row between 1996 and 2007.

You cannot get used to playing (with each other). Now we have 12 matches a year all year round, so we are more used to playing with each other and against teams like Australia and South Africa.

“Since the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, some of our players have played nine matches against New Zealand.”

It took until 2014 for the Pumas to win a Rugby Championship match for the first time, tries from Juan Imhoff and Leonardo Senatore helped them to a 21-17 victory over Australia in Mendoza.

The stunning 37-25 win over South Africa in Durban this year – Imhoff scoring a hat-trick – was even more impressive. Argentina are no longer just making up the numbers in the South Hemisphere competition.

Argentina fans celebrate The Pumas fans have been sensational so far at the RWC. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Even before the frontline Argentinians were playing in the Rugby Championship, there had been important developments domestically to ensure that the production line of players would only increase.

The advent of the academies in Argentina in 2009 was crucial, with nine of the developmental centres now helping players from the age of 16 upwards to learn the technical, physical, nutritional and mental skills required for professional rugby.

“I used to be the manager of one academy,” says Bouza. “Before, the players arrived to you and they were nothing. Now, they start training with us when they are 16 or 17. They go into the academy and it is so important.

Last year against France (the Pumas beat les Bleus 18-13 at Stade de France in the November Tests), about 20 players had come from the academy system. They have played in the U20 World Cup and then they go straight into the senior team.”

The U20 level has been a vital stepping stone for young Argentinian players in recent seasons, with the likes of Santiago Cordero, Tomás Lavanini, Facundo Isa, Pablo Matera and Guido Petti all starring as recently as the 2013 Junior World Championship.

All of those men have been important parts of this World Cup campaign and some may do untold damage to Ireland on Sunday.

One of the issues for Argentinian rugby since the sport turned professional has been the lack of a pro domestic league. It’s meant players have had to head for Europe or stay at home and play a relatively poor quality of rugby.

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2015 - Pool C - Argentina v Tonga - Leicester City Stadium Matera is one of the new breed. Source: Mike Egerton

In 2010, the UAR (Argentina’s union) entered a team into South Africa’s Vodacom Cup, essentially the third tier of rugby in South Africa behind Super Rugby and the Currie Cup.

Pampas XV was almost entirely composed of players from the Argentinian academy system, many of whom have gone on to be full Pumas. The team dropped out of the Vodacom Cup after the 2013 competition, but it was another valuable stepping stone for many players.

“It was really good for us because many of the players that were in Pampas are now playing in this team, so we have been playing together for a while,” says 22-year-old back row Pablo Matera. “I think that’s a big advantage we have in this tournament.”

Matera’s 2013 vintage of the Pampas XV also included Tomás Cubelli, Cordero, Martín Landajo, Matías Alemanno, Mariano Galarza, Senatore and Santiago González Iglesias – all of them playing at the current World Cup.

The coach? Daniel Hourcade, now the Pumas boss.

Indeed, Hourcade was in charge of the Pampas from the beginning in 2010, helping them to the 2011 Vodacom Cup title. Juan Imhoff was top try scorer with 10 that year, while Joaquín Tuculet was superb at fullback and Nicolás Sánchez sublime at out-half. Current Pumas captain Agustín Creevy was in the same squad. 

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Matera recalls playing against the likes of Willem Alberts and Tendai Mtawarira in South Africa in 2013 as they dropped into the Vodacom Cup on returns from injury. The abrasive flanker says the entire experience of life on the road was beneficial.

“It was something new, because we were not used to going three months to South Africa, living out of hotels there,” says Matera.

“It’s not like you go to a club and you have your house. Hotel life for three months is hard, but it was the best we could do to improve us as a team and players. We don’t have much competition back home so we had to go and look for that competition in different places. We have the chance to play in South Africa and it was really big for us.”

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2015 - Pool C - Argentina v Georgia - Kingsholm Stadium There's something special about this Pumas group. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

As alluded to above, the majority of Argentina’s best players have traditionally been forced to head to Europe to make a living, given that it has not been an option at home. Until now.

2016 sees Argentina’s long-hoped-for Super Rugby team finally come to life, with a huge number of this Word Cup squad signed up with the new team. It’s the latest exciting chapter and, potentially, a huge turning point.

Matera has been one of those based in Europe, with the Leicester Tigers since 2013, but he is hugely relieved that he will be able to move home to Argentina after the World Cup.

“We are going to be the first ever professional rugby team from Argentina, so I think that’s great for us,” says Matera. “When I was in Leicester, I was really jealous of the players who can stay in their country, be professionals and don’t have to go away from home and change their cultures.

Now we’re going to be professional rugby players in Argentina and it’s going to be huge for us.”

The fact that the European season does not match up with the Rugby Championship has proven a thorn in the Pumas’ side since 2012.

“It is going to be better for us because at the moment when the players finish the European season they have to do another pre-season to play in the Championship,” says Bouza.

“Now we will be in the same championship every year. It will be normal, it is important that we have the same season as the southern hemisphere.”

We may be about to see the true emergence of another rugby superpower. A win on Sunday would only accelerate the process.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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