Overloaded Pumas have lost fear factor

‘Revenge: The action of inflicting harm on someone for an injury or harm suffered at their hands.”

Overloaded Pumas have lost fear factor

Is it any wonder Joe Schmidt was so quick to dismiss the suggestion, on the back of Ireland’s win over Fiji, that next Saturday’s game against Argentina would descend into a revenge mission after what happened the last time the two sides met?

To suggest that a win next weekend would in some way erase the memory of that fateful, 2015 World Cup quarter-final defeat at the Millennium Stadium, is daft.

World Cups have come to define eras and our painful exit at the hands of the Pumas in Cardiff that day marked the end of the international career of the great Paul O’Connell.

It would have irked the big man even more that he never even got to play that day. His horrific hamstring tear off the bone against France the previous week, which also ended a potentially lucrative and educational move to Toulon, saw to that.

Others to crucially miss out that day, Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien will all get the opportunity to start on Saturday but I don’t expect for a moment that a win at the Aviva Stadium will make up one iota for the disappointment of having to watch that knockout contest from the sidelines two years ago.

Ireland’s failure to deal with the physical challenge up front and the running threat posed out wide by Argentina that day has proved a driving force for everything Schmidt has done with his squad since.

It played a role in the decision to make 13 changes to his side for that Fijian encounter as the lessons from that chastening experience are still being absorbed.

Ireland continue to progress and the game is in a healthy state in this country, despite the disappointment of missing out on the opportunity to host the sports global event in 2023 and the potential spinoff that the event might have offered to grow the sport even further in a country where we will always struggle to close the gap on hurling, Gaelic football, and soccer.

Argentina too face issues on that front but their comparative success in finishing third in 2007 and fourth at the 2015 World Cup, despite glaring obstacles, should serve as a shining example to us.

From the high’s of 2015 however, Argentine rugby has rapidly gone backwards, despite the fact that they now compete annually in the Rugby Championship alongside Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa and, of equal significance, have a domestically-based side competing in Super Rugby.

There are times when you need to be careful what you ask for. For years Argentina suffered from a poor fixture list and the lack of involvement in any meaningful international tournament. Shamefully, they were left to languish between World Cups, hosting summer tours that were largely meaningless.

Their Herculean effort in winning that bronze medal at the 2007 World Cup changed everything. That set the ball rolling and resulted in their eventual inclusion, in 2012, into the Rugby Championship. The benefits of that experience were plain for all to see when they sent us packing in 2015.

Since then, however, the inclusion of a domestic side, the Jaguares, in an expanded Super Rugby tournament that necessitates an inordinate amount of long-haul travel has, so far, proved counterproductive.

The advantages accrued from their inclusion, and there are many, are being outweighed in the short-term at least, by the demands imposed in fulfilling a punishing fixtures schedule which requires the same squad of players competing across two separate competitions for club and country.

What should have proved a catalyst for further improvement has turned out anything but. Argentina’s 31-15 win over Italy in Florence last Saturday was only their eighth win in their 26 internationals played since the World Cup. Four of those wins came against Chile, Japan, Uruguay, and Georgia, the others against Italy (twice), France, and South Africa.

To lose a two test series at home last June to an England side short 22 internationals due to injury and the demands of the Lions tour was a real wake-up call. In theory, Argentina were picking from a full deck in that all of their Rugby Championship squad were available to national coach Daniel Hourcade.

Problem is that the Argentine union has decreed that he can only pick from players who are home-based. So overnight their Super Rugby side also became their international squad. Of the 32 players named in their squad for this November series, 30 play for the Jaguares, the other two with domestic feeder clubs San Luis and Hindu.

That decision by their union has proved counterproductive and, not surprisingly given their disappointing run of results over the last two years, is set to be reevaluated after this tour. Right now 21 quality international players including Juan Imhoff, Marcello Bosch, Juan Figallo, Facunda Isa, Ramiro Herrera, Manuel Carizza, and Plato Fernandez ply their trade with some of the top clubs in Europe but are deemed unavailable for the national side.

That, for a country that has no foreign players competing domestically and therefore unable to grab anyone under the residency rule, has severely narrowed their options in selection.

It has also negated what was a real strength of Argentine rugby in that the bond and desire to play for their country, that always shone through so strikingly when their squad assembled from the four corners of the rugby playing world, has been diluted somewhat.

That freshness no longer exists as the same players report for training every day for club and country. They spend the entire season circumnavigating the globe, playing in New Zealand, South Africa, Japan, and Australia on the domestic stage alone. As their impressive young second row Guido Petti said during the week, no squad of players are required to play over 30 games per season at such a high level and clock up so many air miles along the way.

They have also shot themselves in the foot by trying to emulate the style of free flowing rugby favoured by Australia and New Zealand. In so doing, they have abandoned playing to their traditional strengths up front, including their once-feared scrummaging prowess.

How their aching scrum could do with two quality but exiled tight-head props in Figallo, who has won a Premiership and two Champions Cups since joining Saracens, and Herrera who has moved to Stade Francais. Something has to change for Argentina to reap the benefits from their newfound exposure to regular, top quality, rugby.

I strongly suspect that will happen pretty soon with an easing of their non-selection of overseas players. With two years to go to the next World Cup, that will offer them sufficient time to get their house in order. Before that, they will be required to summon one last mighty effort against Ireland next weekend in their last outing of a gruelling season.

As for Ireland, will a victory on Saturday, however welcome and satisfying, make Sexton, O’Mahony or O’Brien feel any better about how things transpired in Wales two years ago? I doubt it very much. It will be another two years before that particular demon can be exorcised in Japan.

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