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Will the next great Argentina playmaker please stand up?

By Tom Vinicombe
Nicolas Sanchez. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

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There’s an impending problem arising for Argentina in the No 10 jersey.

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While the fortunes of the national side have ebbed and flowed in the professional era, with weaknesses transforming into strengths and strengths collapsing into weaknesses time and time again over the last 25 years, there’s been one constant for Los Pumas: a world-class operator at first receiver.

It was Gonzalo Quesada who led Argentina through the early stages of professionalism, burning brightly for eight years and taking the reins at the 1999 and 2003 World Cups. Felipe Contepomi made his debut for Los Pumas in 1998 and was a mainstay in the squad for over a decade, regularly sharing duties with Quesada from the turn of the century.

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Eddie Jones has announced England’s squad for the Six Nations.
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Eddie Jones has announced England’s squad for the Six Nations.

While Contepomi was rightly hailed at the time as one of the best flyhalves ever produced by South America’s number one rugby nation, that mantle was quickly taken over by Juan Martin Hernandez, a man who may have rivalled Dan Carter and Jonny Wilkinson for the title of ‘best in the world’, were it not for persistent injuries that restricted El Mago to a still-impressive 74 appearances over 16 years in the national set-up.

Since 2012, however, it’s been Nicolas Sanchez who’s dominated the No 10 jersey for Los Pumas and taken over as the top points scorer in Argentina’s history, and 15th on the overall list.

Sanchez, like his predecessors, is equally as impressive will ball-in-hand as he is when he calls on his varied kicking game to help guide Los Pumas around the park.

At 33 years of age, however, Sanchez’s time as a first-choice test flyhalf is quickly coming to a close and even the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France may be a bridge to far for the 90-test international.

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Despite the fact that Argentina have always had someone ready to step in and take over the reins at No 10 in the past, however, there’s no obvious current heir-apparent to Sanchez.

Until last year, it looked like Domingo Miotti was being teed up as the man to replace Sanchez but the 25-year-old’s fortunes have changed massively since he started the 2020 Super Rugby season with such a bang.

After Sanchez left the Jaguares following their 2018 campaign, Miotti was called into the squad to back-up Joaquin Diaz Bonilla. Miotti bided his time behind the more senior playmaker, clocking up useful minutes and a handful of starts and continued to develop his game.

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In 2020, an injury suffered by Bonilla in the opening match saw Miotti take over at No 10 for the majority of the opening rounds, with the young pivot showcasing his full range of skills in three victories and three losses – then Covid struck and the competition was called off.

Later that year, Miotti earned his international debut as Sanchez’s understudy throughout the Tri-Nations but was rarely offered opportunities to the limited number of games played by the Pumas throughout the season.

The global pandemic effectively ended the Jaguares’ tenure in Super Rugby, which saw Miotti transfer to the Western Force for their Super Rugby AU and Trans-Tasman campaigns in 2021. The Argentinian pivot struggled to find his top form for the Australian outfit, however, and while he was still included in the Pumas’ test squad for the early stages of the year, he was again afforded next to no game time.

Altogether, Miotti managed just over 120 minutes of action for Argentina – despite the fact that matches against Romania and a Wales side lacking their British and Irish Lions presented perfect opportunities to help ease the young playmaker into test rugby.

Come the end of the Rugby Championship, Pumas coach Mario Ledesma had evidently decided that Miotti was not the future for Argentina rugby, and while resting Sanchez, chose to start outside back Santiago Carreras at flyhalf against the All Blacks.

Despite all the promise that Miotti had shown in his first few years of professional rugby, Ledesma had moved on from the 25-year-old and omitted him completely from Argentina’s end of year tour to Europe, where Carreras was given the reins for all three of the side’s tests.

Despite Carreras’ new turn in the No 10 jersey, however, he’s reverted to playing in the outside backs for Gloucester in the Premiership. This season, he’s notched up just five appearances – three on the wing, one at fullback and one off the bench.

In fact, Miotti and Sanchez have also struggled for minutes this season.

The former has managed just one solitary appearance for his new side, Glasgow, while the latter has played three times for Stade Francais.

While there’s still ample time ahead of the mid-year tests, when Argentina will host Scotland in a three-match series, it wouldn’t come as a huge surprise if all three of Carreras, Sanchez and Miotti spend the bulk of the season either playing in a position outside of flyhalf, or are used primarily off the bench.

In Sanchez’s case, that may actually benefit the elder statesman who will be looking to preserve his body as much as possible in order to make the coming World Cup.

The importance of that shouldn’t be understated, especially if Miotti and Carreras aren’t going to have many opportunities to develop into top-level flyhalves.

With the Jaguares no longer a part of Super Rugby, the likes of Ledesma and the national side aren’t able to have any influence on how Argentina’s players are being utilised by their clubs around the world and the impacts of that will be felt hugely in the future.

In years gone by, ageing Pumas playmakers have always been usurped by the young talent coming through. Unfortunately for Argentina, there’s little time between now and the World Cup, where Argentina will have to score a win over Japan in order to progress to the quarter-finals, and the window for the ‘next big thing’ to take over is fast closing.

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