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From Mendoza to Marseille, who will Los Pumas select?

By Frankie Deges
Players of Los Pumas sing their national Anthem prior to The Rugby Championship match between the New Zealand All Blacks and Argentina Pumas at Orangetheory Stadium on August 27, 2022 in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Gaspafotos/MB Media/Getty Images)

With Los Pumas due to meet anytime soon to prepare for the first All Blacks Test in Argentina since 2018, Michael Cheika and his assistant coaches are still deciding on who will be in their large preparation squad ahead of The Rugby Championship and, soon after, Rugby World Cup.

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Some have mentioned it could include up to 50 players, with squads being then named for each individual game or trip.

Whilst the All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks (twice) await in the coming weeks, there have to be a number of doubts in the coaches’ minds about players that have not been playing much rugby in the past year.

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Should they get those much-needed minutes in the toughest of competitions?

Should they risk it with players that have not yet been seen at Test level?

One thing is certain. The team will be very well led by Leicester Tigers hooker, and captain, Julián Montoya.

Going into his third Rugby World Cup, the first in which he will be the unchallenged first choice, his leadership will not only prove crucial in the buildup but even more so when tackling England in Marseille in the opening weekend.

First capped in 2014, and having done his apprenticeship under former captain Agustín Creevy – who should now be his understudy – he has the rare sensibility to handle those who are starting and those who aren’t. Sometimes that balance makes or breaks a team.

Of his first 57 tests, he only started in six. His hat trick against Tonga in Osaka four years ago was the start of a run of 27 starts out of the following 28, including two wins against the All Blacks in 2020 and 2022, but also a heavy defeat against them in Hamilton last year.

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When the squad announcement is made – “any time soon,” they said at the UAR – there will be clarity on flanker Marcos Kremer, suspended for five weeks after almost decapitating an opponent in his last appearance for Stade Français. The giant will probably miss all of the Rugby Championship, but will certainly be back in time for the Rugby World Cup.

Pablo Matera, after seeing Scott Robertson do his winning breakdance as a Crusader in 2022, played his rugby in Japan’s second division. Much loved by the Honda Heat fans as he drove them to promotion, little is known of his future, only that France will be his third Rugby World Cup. It might be that the Rugby Championship is key in his return to top-level rugby.

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The halfbacks carry a big question mark.

Tomás Cubelli, who was first choice in the last Rugby World Cup, has left Biarritz, in France’s ProD2, where he played little rugby in the last two years. It was recently announced that he will move to a newly created professional rugby club in Miami, USA, so this year will probably mark the end of his international career.

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Gonzalo Bertranou, who has played the most under Cheika, did not have much game time due to an injury at the Dragons. In fact, he hasn’t played since January.

Olympic sevens medalist Lautaro Bazán Vélez and former U20s captain Gonzalo García have had injury-ridden seasons. The latter is only just returning from a long break.

Two left-field options would come from Super Rugby Americas, the new continental competition.
Former Puma Martín Landajo played for the American Raptors, out of Glendale, near Denver. He stood out in a team that was learning the rugby trade. At 35, he would be an ideal choice as an experienced extra hand.

Uncapped Ignacio Inchauspe showcased his ability at nine playing for Yacare XV, based in Asunción. The franchise shone the brightest when he was on song, which was for most of the tournament, where he was chosen in the Dream Team. His time will come, maybe not as soon as this squad announcement.

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Nicolás Sánchez is aiming for a fourth Rugby World Cup but he is not in the frame as a starter. He was released by Stade Français mid-season and moved to Brive where he played a lot more than at the Parisian club. Yet, his side was relegated. His future could also be in Miami.

Gloucester’s Santiago Carreras will be the first choice. He only played half of his 20 club games at 10, but is growing in the role with every game and The Rugby Championship should confirm he is the solution moving forward.
Little known Joaquín de la Vega Mendía had a good Super Rugby Americas although in a team that did not set the tournament on fire. If there are three 10s, he might the third.

No longer a secret is that Luciano González and Rodrigo Isgro will be tested soon. Bronze medalists in Tokyo 2020 and standouts in Los Pumas 7s best-ever season, both have been unstoppable for the last couple of years. It will be interesting to see how quickly they readjust into the fifteens game.

With Santiago Chocobares and Juan Cruz Mallía most probably rested for the first part of the Championship having won France’s Top 14 with Toulouse, the sevens duo should see some early action at wing and/or centre.

Whilst it sounds strange that The Rugby Championship will act as preparation for Rugby World Cup, this will be the case for a squad that has not been formally together since a big loss against Scotland in Murrayfield last November.

Some have already been working at Los Pumas’ Buenos Aires headquarters.

It is a big year for Argentine rugby. When the squad is finally unveiled, the countdown will really start.

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