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Cheika looking for 'triple playmaker' model with Los Pumas as injury crisis stings

By Frankie Deges
Agustin Creevy of Argentina (3R) and teammates sing the national anthem prior o a Rugby Championship match between Argentina Pumas and South Africa Springboks at Estadio Libertadores de América on September 17, 2022 in Avellaneda, Argentina. (Photo by Daniel Jayo/Getty Images)

Having been extremely well served over the past few Rugby World Cups at halfback and flyhalf, Argentina will be praying that fitness to key players don’t derail their campaign.

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When Michael Cheika announced his 48-man squad late last week he selected four scrumhalves, most of whom are far from match fit.

Tomás Cubelli, with 88 caps to his name, played only five games in the 2022-23 season, of which only two were from the start. As beautiful as the city is, Biarritz Olympique is a shadow of the side it once was in the heydays of Serge Blanco.

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Finishing eleventh in the second division is not the ideal preparation for a World Cup.

Gonzalo Bertranou, whose next test will be his fiftieth, last played in January. First choice for most of last year, he is expected to be fit in time for The Rugby Championship after an operation at the start of the year.

Walking with a limp a couple of weeks ago, Gonzalo García (first capped in 2021) after recovering from a shoulder injury broke knee ligaments last December. He hasn’t played this year.

Finally, Olympic bronze medalist Lautaro Bazán Vélez, who made the transition from sevens to fifteens straight after Tokyo 2020, played four minutes against Scotland in the last of his three caps, all in 2022.

He has been playing club rugby in Italy outside of the United Rugby Championship, and is the only scrumhalf to have completed the recently finished European season.

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“In certain positions, we might obviously need players from outside the 48-man squad due to injury,” Cheika said in a Spanish that is getting better with time, to ESPN’s Scrum.

“We have options outside of this list, but only if we need them because of injury, not because of performance.”

With a possible injury crisis at hooker, nine and ten, a number of players have been given specific fitness regimes.

“Bertranou is fit and has been working very hard since being cleared of his injury. With regards to Cubelli, he has a different training schedule, as he is older.”

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García is expected to be fit, but currently is behind the other three players and Bazán Vélez, who “has a winning mentality, is still transitioning from sevens to fifteens,” in the words of his coach.

Three players are in the fly-half box. The biggest name is 34 year-old Nicolás Sánchez, who could play in his fourth Rugby World Cup.

Top points-scorer in 2015, tormentor in Los Pumas’ first ever win against the All Blacks in 2020, and one of the world’s best paid players when he moved to Stade Français, his star is no longer as bright as it once was.

Five caps shy of 100, he had only played one game for the Parisian club in the 22-23 season when released to Brive. He played 16 games at the club, scoring 120 points yet his team was relegated to the ProD2.

Expected to start at 10 in most games is Santiago Carreras. A utility back, he has recently owned the role for Argentina, with Sánchez injured or playing below his best. For Gloucester, he played at 10, 15 and as wing.

Third in line is Tomás Albornoz, who had a good season for Treviso.

“I need three playmakers in the team,” he said. And if to make his message clear, he said in English: “If you want to be a good playmaker, you have to be able to carry the ball.”

In Cheika’s first year in the role, the foundations for how he wants his team to play the game were set. “This year, it is about putting our opponents under pressure by attacking them. I want my team to attack with the ball.”

“For that,” says the former Randwick number eight, “we need to ensure we dominate defensively, at the breakdown and the scrum.”

The pack will be huge and with options in every position. Captained by the efficient and prolific Julián Montoya, thirteen players will be aiming for their second, third and even fourth, in the case of former captain Agustín Creevy, Rugby World Cup.

Included in the squad are the two Argentines that played in Super Rugby Pacific: prop Santiago Medrano, a regular in Western Force’s front-row, and Martín Bogado, who played four consecutive games at wing for the Highlanders before being struck by injury.

He is one of only three uncapped players, the other two being the sevens stars Rodrigo Isgró and Luciano González.

“We think they can make the transition the quickest from sevens to fifteen in time for Rugby World Cup.”

“We won’t pressure them into being ready in two weeks; we have until August 6th when we name the World Cup squad.”

“We are aiming for them to be successful.”

What will success look like for Argentina.

In the words of someone that has coached teams to European Cup and Super Rugby glory and to a Rugby World Cup semi-final, “we must prepare in the best possible way so that we prepared to win the World Cup.”

Argentina’s Rugby Championship squad:

Props: Eduardo Bello (10 caps), Ignacio Calles (2 caps), Thomas Gallo (13 caps), Francisco Gómez Kodela (28 caps), Santiago Medrano (32 caps), Joel Sclavi (9 caps) Lucio Sordoni (3 caps), Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro (76 caps), Mayco Vivas (17 caps)
Hookers: Facundo Bosch (13 caps), Agustín Creevy (97 caps), Julián Montoya (capitán – 85 caps), Santiago Socino (8 caps), Ignacio Ruiz (4 caps)
Locks: Matías Alemanno (84 caps), Lucas Paulos (10 caps), Guido Petti (73 caps), Tomás Lavannini (78 caps)
Loose forwards: Marcos Kremer (56 caps), Pedro Rubiolo (1 cap), Juan Martín González (20 caps), Santiago Grondona (10 caps), Facundo Isa (44 caps), Pablo Matera (91 caps), Joaquín Oviedo (1 cap), Rodrigo Bruni (18 caps)
Scrumhalves: Lautaro Bazán Vélez (3 caps), Gonzalo Bertranou (49 caps), Tomás Cubelli (88 caps), Gonzalo García (3 caps)
Flyhalves: Tomás Albornoz (3 caps), Santiago Carreras (31 caps), Nicolás Sánchez (95 caps)
Backs: Jerónimo de la Fuente (74 caps), Santiago Chocobares (11 caps), Lucio Cinti (12 caps), Luciano González (uncapped), Matías Moroni (69 caps), Matías Orlando (57 caps), Martín Bogado (uncapped), Sebastián Cancelliere (13 caps), Mateo Carreras (7 caps), Santiago Cordero (49 caps), Bautista Delguy (25 caps), Juan José Imhoff (41 caps), Rodrigo Isgró (uncapped), Emiliano Boffelli (50 caps) y Juan Cruz Mallía (24 caps)

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2 Comments
c
carlos 384 days ago

I was under the impression that the Pumas had real problems at prop, unfortunately now I realize they also have problems at 9 and 10. Que lío, Frankie!

R
Rodrigo 384 days ago

Felipe Ezcurra at 9? Why not?

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William 19 minutes ago
All Blacks vs England takeaways: Richie Who? Time for Cortez

Correct analysis of Perofeta’s bungling of the try opportunity Ben. Never ‘fixed’ Steward as he came across in defence and passed too early. Steward didn’t have to break his stride and simply moved on to pressure Telea. Never scanned the easier option of passing to the two supporting players on the inside. Beauden Barrett showed how it is done when he put Telea in for his try. Another point from the game is that the rush defence is hard to maintain as the number of phases increases. From scrums the defensive line only contains backs who all have roughly the same pace. Once forwards are involved, the defence has players with variable speeds often leading to a jagged line. It also tends to lose pace overall giving the attack more time and space. Beauden Barrett’s break to set up Telea’s try came because Baxter went in to tackle McKenzie and Steward went out to cover Telea. Barrett has a massive hole to run through, then commits Steward by passing as late as possible and Telea scores untouched. Another comment I would make is that Ben Earl is a good player and generally an excellent defender but he made three significant misses in the series, two of which led to All Black tries. Got stepped by Perofeta in Dunedin for Savea’s try, missed McKenzie in Auckland leading to what should have been a certain try being set up by Perofeta and was one of the tacklers who couldn’t stop Savea in the leadup to Telea’s first try. Perhaps he should contact Owen Farrell to pick up a few tips from ‘tackle school’.

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