The Pumas take their place at the top table of Rugby Union
In four days Argentina will play South Africa at DHL Newlands in Cape Town, an historic match which sees the South Americans join their first tier-one annual competition in the first year of The Rugby Championship.
Their entry and debut match is the culmination of years of hard work, which went up a gear after the 2007 Rugby World Cup, and saw Argentina record back-to-back wins over host nation France, and in November that year the status of the team was a key topic to ensure they had more regular competition.
More test matches throughout June and November have been implemented in the last three seasons, but now they will clash against the top three nations in world rugby, double Rugby World Cup winners in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa every year.
Argentinean coach Santiago Phelan has, as was part of the original agreement to ensure the Pumas were able to be at their most competitive, named a powerful squad for The Rugby Championship, with the nucleus of the squad coming from European clubs.
Charismatic forward Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe will captain the side, with the flanker a regular at Toulon since 2009, and while the country’s record point’s scorer in Felipe Contepomi is absent, his decision to hang up his international boots has taken attention away from another one of the Pumas mercurial playmakers.
Juan Martin Hernandez would have been familiar to fans in the South at fly-half, but a back injury meant that the Sharks glamour signing for 2010 didn’t suit up for a single match.
Lobbe will lead a Pumas pack that is strong, with the only real injury concern to his back row partner, the workhorse Juan Manuel Leguizamon, while the second row will be aptly led by Patricio Albacete.
But it is the presence of Hernandez, product of famous Buenos Aires club Asociacion Deportiva Francesa that gives the Pumas ample options in their rearguard, and that is something Sir Graham Henry has advised Argentina needs to think about – or as he said, they just need “to score more tries.”
Springbok hooker Bismarck du Plessis said Argentina’s impending arrival to Cape Town was a good step for all teams.
“It will be nice to have a different team to play against, and new opponents to square up to,” he said.
“There is a lot of respect between us and them and also a healthy rivalry because of the strong relationship the two nations have on the rugby field.
There is already great history between South African and Argentinean Rugby.
“Doctor Danie Craven was one of the South Africans who helped them develop rugby in their country, and it is fitting that we are playing them in their first Rugby Championship match. Being part of that will be great for me,” du Plessis said.
The magnitude of the occasion is something the Argentine players have admitted is on their minds, although over 20 players were at the Rugby World Cup last year, and several Pumas played at the 2007 tournament, which is where Hernandez was arguably the player of the tournament.
Coach Phelan, himself a two-time World Cup representative for Argentina in the flanks, will be wary of the advice from Henry that the team needs to have a more enthusiastic approach to their rugby, warning that perhaps classic Puma forward play and their classic bajada scrum tactics might need more dimensions to compete with the top-three in the world.
Hernandez and others have the ability to play multi-faceted rugby, with the Racing-Metro back perhaps having more weapons that the legendary Huga Porta and his educated boot, but any in-decision over whether to attack or play it tight up front won’t be something the Pumas will worry about too much.
After all their forward power up front has made Argentina a unique combatant on the world rugby stage, has made them formidable on home turf, while their no-nonsense rugby might not have the layers of planning that Henry’s All Blacks did, they gave the eventual World Champions a torrid time before a late Kieran Read try flattered the All Blacks score line.