“How scared should the rest of the world be?”
It seemed the logical question after talking to Pablo Matera for 15 minutes the other day.
The Argentinian flanker and more of his colleagues had already spoken about the advances made by the Pumas in their four years spent prowling around the Rugby Championship with the SANZAR beasts, the imminent entry of a Buenos Aires side into Super Rugby and the various other strands that are combining to make the Pumas an ever greater threat on the rugby landscape.
Matera just laughed, but no-one else should.
And it was a Kiwi journalist who asked that question, by the way.
Ireland take on Argentina on Sunday in a World Cup quarter-final at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium – you probably know that already – and the rather surprising vibe here in Wales among the Irish media is one of not-so-quiet confidence. The common consensus is that Joe Schmidt’s side will have enough to get by the South Americans before their injuries take a full toll in the last four.
You wonder why.
Argentina are ranked higher than England or France right now, they defeated South Africa in Durban’s King’s Park only last August and they are playing a scintillating brand of rugby that fuses their traditional strengths up front with a cutting edge out back. They pushed New Zealand for an hour and have racked up the most points and third most tries in the pool stages.
It was New Zealand’s World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry who initiated the most critical of changes. The Kiwi spent some time in the country in 2012 in a consultancy role and told them that their traditional values of set-piece dominance and defensive belligerence would simply not cut it if they were to survive and thrive in the Rugby Championship and beyond.
“We had a great defence, one of the best in the world, but we didn’t attack much,” said scrum-half Martin Landajo this week. “He said it was impossible to win games like this. We could defend for 80 minutes, but we wouldn’t win. He tried to change our minds. He did it. It was not easy, but now with (coach) Daniel (Hourcade) he follows this line also.”
The result is a tantalising hybrid of old and new and Landajo agrees that the new Argentina is one that should appeal to a country which has long idolised the Maradonas and Messis of the beautiful game. The veteran playmaker Juan Martin Hernandez has spoken about how kids watching this new approach to rugby on TV will be more easily captivated.
None of this is good news for Ireland right now.
Ireland had it hard enough against these guys in 1999, 2003 and 2007 and that was when their focus never strained much beyond a ten-man game based on physical brutality. But Felipe Contepomi spoke earlier this week about how and why his old side is now playing with a structured abandon, if there can be such a thing.
“It is multi-factorial. It is not only one thing or one person. The first thing started in 2009 when we started doing the academies back home. They started developing players and now every young player you see are guys who came through those academies. Another important thing was the introduction into Rugby Championship. It is more expansive.
“If you don’t adapt to that sort of game you will probably (concede) 40 or 50 points per game so you have to adapt to that. The third thing is that before the national team was together six weeks in the whole year. Now we are about four months or more between the six weeks of autumn and summer internationals and the Championship, you can work a lot of game plans and strategies.”
The results are already apparent. A draw with South Africa in their inaugural 2012 Rugby Championship season was followed by 15 straight losses before the historic first win, over Australia last year, and a breakthrough victory on the road, which they claimed only last August at the expense of the Boks in King’s Park. Ireland’s number of Test victories in South Africa? Zilch.
Argentina’s hot-housing in that environment has been astonishing. Paul O’Connell faced the All Blacks half-a-dozen times in the course of his 13-year Ireland career. Marcos Ayerza, the granddad of this Puma team, has met them eight while a number of his teammates have already done so nine times since the 2011 World Cup alone.
Another contributing factor was the Pampas XV, a developmental side put together to give their best prospects exposure to a higher level of rugby. For four years they played in South Africa’s domestic Vodacom Cup and faced Currie Cup sides such as Golden Lions, Western Province and Blue Bulls. That’s one tough breeding ground.
“It was something new, because we were not used to that,” said Matera. “To go three months to South Africa and stay at a hotel there. It was hard because it was not like when you got to a club and you have your house. It’s like hotel life for three months. It was quite hard, but it was the best we could do to improve us as a team and as players.”
Matera is about to spend considerably more time in foreign hotel rooms from 2016 on when the new Argentinian Super Rugby side takes to the field. Pumas assistant coach Pablo Bouza has highlighted the benefits to be had for the national side by dint of the simple fact that players’ club and Test seasons will now be aligned into one southern hemisphere season.
Good as they are now, Argentina are only getting better. Maybe this is the best time to catch them, after all.
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