Los Pumas are making progress but consistency isn't in their vocabulary yet
Will the real Pumas please stand up?
After eight games under coach Michael Cheika, it is very clear that Los Pumas are making progress, not only on the scoreboard: a last second series win against Scotland, home win against Australia, away win against the All Blacks.
Chinks are still noticeable but certain aspects of the game are better.
Yet, it is still a team that is hard to gage in terms of what they will come up on the day. Consistency is a word they still struggle to spell.
This was certainly the case in their last home-game for the season, when losing by 16 points against an efficient, well-oiled Springbok side that is making sure that when Rugby World Cup 2023 comes, they will be more than prepared to defend their title and possibly emulate the All Blacks and win back-to-back titles.
Exciting rugby: maybe not, but efficient certainly.
They only needed to stick to their game plan, surf the rough waves during a 20-minute period in which Argentina forgot their apathy of the opening half, and close a game that was, at one stage, open, with two tries.
Their ultimate goal is also France 2023.
Cheika continues to work on getting to know and understand the culture of team and country and how best to reach them with a message that will instill in them the need to play every game maintaining their own expected high standards.
They were not close to what the coach is expecting at the Independiente Stadium, a late replacement to Velez Sarsfield, their BA home ground.
“The mental preparation of the team is going very well,” Cheika answered a question from RugbyPass after the 36-20 loss.
“This is a team that hasn’t got a culture or understanding of what success looks like. You have to be sure you bring it every day.”
If a culture of success is the ability to repeat success, he might have a point as Los Pumas has always struggled to win consecutive games consistently.
It has happened in two of the last four Rugby World Cups, winning six of seven games to place third in France 2007 and five of seven to finish fourth in England in 2015. But seldom before or after.
In this year’s Rugby Championship, their record reads: lost, won, won, lost, lost.
It is a battle Cheika is fighting with his team.
“Every day we are bringing a better level and attitude to training and games.
To be consistent, and as we go towards the World Cup, it is an area that we are working on.”
In the post-match press conference he added:
“Maybe, maybe, in the past, taking South Africa close and getting 22-20 was good enough. But it is not good enough anymore. We need to get into a position and we need to go on and win.”
After forgetting to play the rugby they can play in the first 50 minutes, Argentina suddenly sprung to life. With fullback Willie Le Roux in the sin-bin, when replacement scrumhalf Tomás Cubelli was illegally stopped, a penalty try ensued.
Down to thirteen as replacement flanker Kwagga Smith was duly sinbined, and with the crowd support (“it was the loudest I’ve ever been in a game,” said Damian de Allande) behind them, Matías Moroni ran around the defenders to score a try that had to be triple-checked by James Doleman and his fellow Kiwi TMO Chris Hart.
With the Springboks winning by 16, this try did not become topical, but there was certainly a marginal forward pass by Marcos Kremer to the try scorer.
As soon as the Springboks were back to fifteen, it was the same earlier domination as two more tries were scored, the last by player of the match Malcolm Marx in a movement where the whole South African front-row handled the ball.
When questioned about some refereeing decisions or the way Doleman handled the breakdown – in all Argentina was penalized 19 times – Cheika refused to walk into that trap.
“My mother forced me to promise her that I would not speak about the referee and I can’t go against that,” he laughed.
Being a good son, he certainly did not go against Mrs Cheika’s wishes yet he did point out that there were areas that needed to get better for the last outing in Durban on Saturday.
“From being the team least penalized in the first two rounds, they became the team most penalized in the last two.”
His captain Montoya admitted that they had not been the team they can be.
“We must do what we have trained. Not doing that forces us into indiscipline,” he said about those penalties.
The turnaround between games is short. With no direct flight to South Africa, both teams shared a charter flight to ensure they arrived in Durban as quickly as possible.
The return game could be a mountain too high for a team that is still working on being consistently successful.
They were a shadow of the team Cheika knows they can be and that players dream they could be.
It is all part of the road to France 2023. Fans and pundits got suddenly excited about the prospect of having the best ever Rugby Championship. A third win will certainly make it that.
If success is bred into Argentine rugby culture, then this will come with time, hard work and effort.
Maybe not as quickly as next Saturday.