Head coach Daniel Hourcade is on his way out after Saturday’s match with Scotland. With the Rugby Championship just months away and a World Cup on the horizon Argentina are in a mess. Just how has it gone so wrong for the 2015 World Cup semi-finalists.
At the 2007 World Cup the rugby public sat up and took notice as Argentina shocked hosts and Six Nations champions France 17-12 in the tournament opener and beat highly-fancied Ireland 30-15, to finish top of their pool. Their team featured a traditionally robust pack and a few backs to savour including the likes of Felipe Contepomi and the king of drop goals Juan Martin Hernandez. It was a side which went on to claim third place at the tournament.
The goal at the time was admission to the Six Nations, a tournament which would suit the Argentine game, coupled with the fact that most of their players played in the Northern Hemisphere, it was the perfect match. A few weeks after the World Cup had finished, in November 2007, they formally applied to join the Six Nations. By the end of that same month the International Rugby Board (now World Rugby) extinguished that hope with a statement: “’The forum agreed that the Pumas’ future lies in the southern hemisphere. In the short term there are major hurdles to the integration of Argentina into the southern playing structure. However, the Argentinian Rugby Union (UAR) have made a commitment to have their players contracted to the union and for the majority of their players to be based in Argentina by 2012”.
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After years of chasing the Six Nations dream, a complete change of tack was needed. Trying to entice home players who were on lucrative contracts wasn’t going to be easy or happen overnight. Their cause wasn’t helped by SANZAR, who in April 2010 agreed a five-year deal for Super Rugby from 2011 to 2015. It meant that the earliest an Argentine club side could enter the competition would be 2016. So with no domestic league of note to bring back players to in the interim, they were left in no-man’s land by the body which could and should have done more. SANZAR hadn’t completely cut Argentina adrift, the Tri-Nations was expanded to the Rugby Championship, but it was not a consolidated plan by SANZAR to integrate, both club and country.
So with players still based in the Northern Hemisphere Argentina trudged on regardless, admission to the Rugby Championship came in 2012. It was the beginning of the end of traditional Argentine rugby, the decision to adjust their game to the Southern Hemisphere style was made. In came Daniel Hourcade in 2013 to implement this. By the 2015 World Cup all seemed to be rosy, I witnessed first-hand the new brand of rugby, as Los Pumas dismantled Ireland in the quarter-finals at the Millennium Stadium, winning 43-20. They ran out of steam against Australia in the semi-finals, but they could go home pleased with their efforts, but it’s been downhill, and fast, since.
In the last two Rugby Championship’s Argentina have won just one match, in 2016 they beat South Africa 26-24 and slumped to five defeats, in 2017 it was a whitewash, six losses. They trudged up to Europe for the November internationals and I asked Hourcade whether Argentina had the toughest schedule of any other international side.
“That’s probably one of the biggest problems we have. Last season we travelled 186,000km so probably four times around the world. We’re used to that and it is our reality. We want the competition to play week-by-week and that is what we want and we are really happy about that. We have only just started, two seasons, and we only have 34 professional players,” he said.
“Our problem is not the amount of players we have, it’s the competition we have. We only have one tournament with one team so few players can develop at the top level. We would be better to be in the northern hemisphere but we are not allowed be there.”
“We need three or four teams [laughs].”
But it remains just a single team and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon, particularly with Super Rugby culling sides of late, from South Africa and Australia. Despite Argentina being solely reliant on one team to provide them with their players, there were signs of encouragement this season. The Jaguares, under new head coach Mario Ledesma, are a respectable seventh in the Super Rugby table with eight wins and five defeats from their thirteen matches so far and are currently on a six-match unbeaten run.
But ultimately when you are relying on a mid-table Super Rugby team to form the basis of your international side, it will have repercussions, it’s a step up and it’s a different style of play, particularly playing against Northern Hemisphere sides. Despite the Jaguares recent form in Super Rugby the national team have had a chastening June, beaten 2-0 at home by an under-strength Wales, their first series loss to the Welsh since 1999. The performance in 30-12 second Test reverse was so insipid that Hourcade fell on his sword.
“We (Hourcade and his assistants) think that the message is no longer getting through to the team, we’ve reached the end of a cycle. We assume the responsibility of making this decision, having already mentioned the possibility… before the June Tests”, the 60-year-old said.
Hourcade’s last game will come on Saturday against Scotland, once again his entire 23-man squad are Jaguares players.
So what can change, not much really and that is the concerning part. The amount of travel their players face both through Super Rugby and internationally cannot be altered. The one factor the UAR can modify is their selection policy, currently only South Hemisphere based players are allowed to play for the national team. It is a catastrophic waste to see the likes of Toulon’s Facundo Isa and Racing 92’s Juan Imhoff not being eligible for selection.
The recently-elected UAR President Marcelo Rodriguez is certainly looking at the issue, “It is one of the measures that I will promote in my administration. It’s something that will then have to be discussed and approved through the Council, but I firmly believe that the Pumas have to play the best.”
Since reaching the 2015 World Cup semi’s Argentina have lost 21 of their last 27 games. 2017 saw jut two wins and 10 defeats. 2018 is not looking at all promising either, another Rugby Championship whitewash could be on the cards, with improvements from South Africa and Australia visible in June. Los Pumas been thrown into a tough pool at the 2019 World Cup too, alongside England, France, USA and Tonga. It’s hard to be upbeat if you’re an Argentina supporter.
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