When Argentina were turning heads in the Rugby Championship, by skittling the All Blacks in their own back yard, and running the Wallabies ragged in San Juan, Gloucester boss George Skivington was affording himself a disbelieving chuckle. Having just put 48 points on Australia, his eager-to-please Pumas were ringing him up to check whether they were wanted back in Gloucester for a rest-week training session.
“I was like, ‘No, lads, have a holiday in between games and just put your feet up’,” laughs Skivington. “But the Argentina boys always want to do what’s right for the club. They want to contribute and they don’t ever want to be seen as not giving 100 per cent.”
From Gloucester in the West Country to Newcastle in the North East, a recurring theme behind the scenes is the indomitable work ethic and high standards that Pumas are bringing to Premiership clubs. But while Skivington may smile, England may yet come to weep.
England host Argentina at Twickenham on November 6, before the Pumas head to Cardiff and Edinburgh later in the month to face Wales and Scotland. A little further ahead, there is the small matter of England’s Pool D World Cup opener against Argentina in Marseille. And with each passing week of the Premiership, the Argentinians are getting to know their English hosts that little bit better.
The diaspora of Argentinians – accelerated by the demise of Buenos Aires-based Super Rugby franchise Jaguares during the pandemic – continues to flood the Premiership with Pumas. This is to the English league’s benefit. For some brief but compelling proof just take a look at the tries scored by jet-heeled Newcastle winger Mateo Carreras so far this season. But it’s also to the Argentinian players’ benefit, and to their national side’s too.
Current Argentina players say Michael Cheika and the rest of his Pumas’ coaching team look favourably on the Premiership as a place in which to stake a claim for international selection, and their growing affection for England is shown by the setting of a two-day training camp in Manchester. This adaptability partially explains the numbers of South Americans migrating to the north-east Atlantic.
“I think the Gloucester boys fear that we’re going to take over,” jokes Socino, one of Skivington’s trans-hemisphere workhorses. “They’re a bit worried now with another Argy coming over.”
Then the dry-humoured Socino mood turns more serious. “We don’t come here to go through the motions. We’re blessed to have an opportunity to play here. Playing in the Premiership gets you in a great position to move onto international rugby.
“I know for a fact the coaches are looking at this league and the players in it. I’m happy where we are as a pack, as a team and with the coaching structure, and playing week-in, week-out helps me hopefully get in the form to then fight for a spot in the Argentina squad.
“I want the best for Gloucester. I want to play every week and we’ve got goals and a lot to look forward to. But personally I’ve also got that Argentina shirt there. I want to wear both shirts. November, July, World Cup – any time. For our situation, the Premiership is great for us to get our hands up and get selected.”
Mauling as a hooker is a tough skill. It takes a lot of feel, sensing and experience – knowing when to go and which way, when to keep the ball and when to pass. Montoya and Creevy are really, really smart in that area
Socino is one of three world-class Argentinian hookers in the Premiership, alongside Creevy at Irish and Leicester’s wrecking-ball Julian Montoya. The lineout drive has become an increasingly potent weapon in the Premiership in recent seasons, and Socino believes his countrymen’s mastery at the maul has been a key driver of this.
“We’ve all been brought up from a young age with the forward pack dominance being really important,” he says. “If you have a look through the years Argentina have always had big forwards and taken pride in it as a country.
“Mauling as a hooker is a tough skill. It takes a lot of feel, sensing and experience – knowing when to go and which way, when to keep the ball and when to pass. Montoya and Creevy are really, really smart in that area.”
But alongside the traditional front-row strength of the Pumas, it is Argentina backs who are weaving spells out wide.
One of the most telling snapshots of Argentinian play in recent weeks actually had no impact on the scoreboard. The play’s impact on defence coaches’ heart rates, however, is likely to be another matter.
If we rewind to Kingston Park a few weeks ago, there are 80 seconds left on the clock as Newcastle trail Saracens 34-14. The result is a foregone conclusion. Owen Farrell spots space in the Falcons’ back field and fires off a clearance kick. Moroni tidies up a threatening bouncing ball with a dextrous pass to fly-half Tian Schoeman, who then ships the ball wide to Carreras, who is just in front of his own 22.
Seconds earlier, Carreras has taken the briefest of glances up field, identifying both the space and the mismatches ahead. When he receives the ball, attacking derring-do is the only thing on his mind.
Santiago Carreras at Gloucester is a plausible candidate for one of the most intelligent readers of the game. Despite playing at 10 for his country, he is a permanent figure in Gloucester’s back three
Carreras scythes through a couple of forwards, surges into the Saracens half and chips the ball over Max Malins with such timing that Malins is immediately left in no man’s land. Carreras comfortably beats Farrell in the chase, but the ball – by a matter of millimetres – goes dead before Carreras can dot it down. No points on the scoreboard, but plenty of points for the style of counter-attacking audacity.
Dave Walder, the Falcons head coach, admits to being surprised that Carreras hasn’t had a look-in internationally since Cheika arrived at the Pumas in March, but expects that to change.
“Mateo respects everyone but fears no-one, which is a good attribute to have,” says Walder. “After his start to the season you’d like to think he’d be in contention for the Autumn Internationals. On the one hand, I really hope he gets called up to Argentina, on the other I really don’t.”
Elsewhere in the Premiership, another Carreras is standing out. Santiago Carreras at Gloucester is a plausible candidate for one of the most intelligent readers of the game. Despite playing at 10 for his country, he is a permanent figure in Gloucester’s back three. The variety of his kicking game – most notably his ability to spot and execute a 50:22 – is astute, his running elusive and, for a comparatively slight player, his defence consistently robust. The deepening insight he is getting into English backline play will inevitably ensure the Pumas aren’t short of ideas at Twickenham.
“The beauty of the Argentina lads is that they want to do what’s right for the team and what’s right for the team is that Santi’s in the back three at the moment,” explains Gloucester director of rugby Skivington, who is playing Scotland’s Adam Hastings at fly-half.
“I’m not saying he’d never ever play 10 for us. He’s a very talented individual who can play numerous positions very well. We’re very lucky to have him. For now his place is in the back three and that’s what’s right for the team and he’s very happy with that. We don’t actually have long discussions around it or anything like that.
“His and the rest of the Argentina lads’ approach day-by-day is second to none and they love it here – they’ve bought into the Gloucester way of doing things.”
They are good players and good people. My experience of Argentinians until recently was pretty limited but the guys we’ve had in have got a really good character about them. They like the hard work but they like the flash bits as well
Dave Walder, Newcastle Falcons head coach
Adapting and thriving is a theme that Walder identifies in his own South American imports at Newcastle.
“They are good players and good people,” he says. “My experience of Argentinians until recently was pretty limited but the guys we’ve had in have got a really good character about them. They like the hard work but they like the flash bits as well.”
A large portion of Argentinian graft mixed with a generous helping of flair. It’s a recipe that’s serving English clubs well in the Premiership. November 6 will go some way to showing whether Premiership clubs’ gain is ultimately to the England national team’s detriment.
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