Argentina boss Daniel Hourcade: You only surprise top teams once

The Conrad Hotel, Dublin.

Argentina boss Daniel Hourcade: You only surprise top teams once

Just another day in another country and another pre-match press conference for Argentina head coach Daniel Hourcade, who is showing the patience of a saint at the end of a long, globe-trotting season that will end tomorrow after 11 months and roughly 186,000 air miles.

Only once does his calm and pleasant demeanour crack even a tad. It comes when one of the local journalists, having tickled his fancy with talk of their World Cup odyssey in 2015 and the explosion of joy it triggered back home, brings up the semi-final loss to Australia.

Any regrets?

“It is always easy when you are the man in the newspaper,” he counters. “No regrets about that game, no. I would try to use the same strategy.”

Strategy is something of a buzz word with the Pumas.

Left in a not-so-splendid isolation for decades, they were finally embraced by the old Tri-Nations and their new pro-club side, the Jaguares, welcomed into the expanded Super Rugby’s bold but convoluted pattern. Hence all that endless travel.

“We would be better to be in the northern hemisphere, but we are not allowed be there,” admits Hourcade.

Participation south of the equator, and the need to make the Jaguares competitive, has resulted in the policy of using only those players based at home in the Test arena and the litany of defeats in the last two years is proof of just how painful these growing pains have been.

Hourcade describes that decision as political and thus one outside of his control. He also talks at some length about the difficulty of calling in a player from Europe, who is accustomed to one style of rugby and then asking him to switch to a more expansive approach, or vice versa.

Hence, no Juan Imhoff, no Facundo Isa or Juan Figallo, and all the rest. So, a nation’s rugby team finds itself engineering a separation from the maul-and-scrum traditions for which it was once renowned and, while they have played some sublime rugby at times, they continue to fall short against their SANZAR cousins and the Englands of this world.

“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.”

That change is being reflected on the ground back home, where the clubs are aping that re-emphasis on a looser, more rounded style of play, but the game in Argentina remains amateur and the rate of such a tectonic shift is slow.

Ultimately, there are too few players being exposed to the highest levels. Hourcade is working with a 34-man squad this month, but the same faces keep popping up. The side named yesterday contained just three changes from the one that started the win last week in Italy.

Fourteen of those who lined up a fortnight ago against England do so again. The wonderful Juan Martin Hernandez misses out with a knee complaint. A shame.

The idea is that all the overseas players will be eligible for selection again come 2019, which is the next World Cup year, but Argentina need more help now and the oft-mooted second professional club outfit would be a start.

“We need three or four teams,” says Hourcade, laughing.

Argentina pitch up hoping to sign off for the year with what be just their third win and facing an Irish side which he is certain has progressed at pace since they met in that World Cup quarter-final in Cardiff and one with a better fix on just what to expect.

“Probably, two years ago you were surprised at the way we started playing,” said Hourcade. “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.”

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