Super Rugby can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing. Just ask Springbok World-Cup winning coach Rassie Erasmus. South Africa – typically represented by four franchises, but increasing to six during phases of misguided tournament ‘expansion’ – gave more than they got during the 24 years that the Republic spent south of the professional divide.
Only one South African side won the tournament: the Bulls, on three occasions between 2007-2010. At national level, the Springboks won their second World Cup in 2007, the year of the northern province’s first Super Rugby triumph. It was like a comet flashing across the sky. It temporarily masked a miserable return for a proud rugby nation at provincial level. After all, the Boks had won rather more than 50 per cent of their matches against the All Blacks in the amateur era.
The twin nadirs were a 57-15 loss to New Zealand at King’s Park, Durban on 8 October 2016, followed by a 57-0 thumping one year later at North Harbour Stadium, the season before Erasmus took control of the team. Anyone can lose to the All Blacks, but to lose at home by 50 points to the old enemy, without firing a shot in anger? That was too much to bear.
As ex-Springbok flanker Francois Louw recently commented, “2018 [when Erasmus took over] was the turning point for South African rugby. You have to remember that we were coming out of a really dark period. We had new leadership in Rassie and his coaches, and they were trying to spark some belief within the team.”
Erasmus broke the Super Rugby spell of endless ball movement on attack and returned South African rugby to its historical strengths of aggressive defence, brutal play at scrum and maul, and regular bombing raids from the skies.
When the four principal franchises turned their backs on Super Rugby and headed north in 2020, it was simply a confirmation of a shift in mindset which had already happened at the 2019 World Cup. South Africa was going to be itself, and find the rugby culture which suited it best.
“It’s not the same flavour; the physicality is down. You still get the odd good game and derby game, but unfortunately the Australians, apart from the Brumbies, haven’t really lived up to being competition for the top sides in New Zealand. The Springboks and South African sides are certainly missed.”
One size quite emphatically does not suit all, and the same rule holds true for the Argentine national team too. The foundation of the Jaguares Super Rugby franchise in 2016 looked like a great solution to the problem of collecting all the best Argentine talent in one place, but it did not turn out that way. Far from it.
The Argentine franchise found itself without a home in the post-Covid world, but the red flags were already fluttering at national level. After two semi-final appearances at the 2007 and 2015 World Cups book-ending a quarter-final in 2011, the Pumas failed to emerge from the group stages of the competition in 2019.
For a rugby nation which prides itself on scrummaging, the propping options (in Argentina) are just not good enough.
The formation of the Jaguares neatly coincided with a rapid decline in Argentine tight forward play, and particularly with their production of elite scrummaging props. The last pair of top-drawer operators the Pumas put out on the field were the duo of Marcos Ayerza and Ramiro Herrera at the 2015 World Cup.
Therefore, the announcement of the 2023 Rugby Championship squad arrived with something of a tongue-in-cheek frisson, when Pumas’ head honcho Michael Cheika commented optimistically:
“This year, it is about putting our opponents under pressure by attacking them. I want my team to attack with the ball.”
“For that, we need to ensure we dominate defensively, at the breakdown and the scrum.”
It is last part of that statement which bears the least scrutiny. The front row, when it was announced, contained most of the usual suspects: Thomas Gallo, Mayco Vivas and Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro on the loosehead side, with Eduardo Bello, Francisco Gómez Kodela and Santiago Medrano on the other side. Huge Stade Rochelais prop Joel Sclavi is developing as a swing man who can play both No 1 and No 3 at his club on the Atlantic coast of France.
And therein lies the problem. For a rugby nation which prides itself on scrummaging, the propping options are just not good enough. At the 2022 Rugby Championship, the Pumas set-piece joined the Wallabies at the bottom of the penalty win/loss table, with eight penalties won against 12 conceded. A ‘minus 4’ outcome compared poorly with the Springboks, who were ‘plus 11’ at the scrum after their migration to the north.
Uncertainty in selection reflected a lack of genuine quality, with two different looseheads (Gallo and Tetaz) and three different tightheads (Bello, Sclavi and Gómez Kodela) flanking world-class rake Julián Montoya during the tournament.
But let’s roll the clock back, all the way back to the last great scrummaging Argentine front row circa 2014/2015, to offer a positive which clarifies and gives context to the negative:
These two clips come from a 2014 match between two of the premier scrummaging nations historically, the Pumas and the Springboks. The South African front row of Gurthro Steenkamp, Bismarck Du Plessis and his brother Janie on the tighthead does not lack for either ballast or technical know-how, but it is convincingly broken at two consecutive set-pieces by Argentina.
The scrums illustrate the Pumas’ preferred technique at the time. Their huge No 3 Ramiro Herrera changes the height of the scrum quickly to make the most of his advantage in size and power, while Marco Ayerza tucks in on the loosehead and drives his hooker forward and across the tunnel. The scrum moves up on a left-to-right axis, and there is nothing the Springboks can do about it.
Ayerza was key to the Pumas’ domination of the set-piece. He never scrummaged on the outside of his opponent, he always set up inside and worked his way underneath the tighthead’s sternum. One short year later, he was giving Springbok newcomer Vincent Koch a rude introduction to the harsh reality of the Test-match scrum:
With the Springbok scrum already unstable at the feed, Ayerza is in the perfect technical position to exploit any slight adjustments in body shape by Koch, and drive through and under his right shoulder. It is he who is dictating that left-to-right movement and forcing the scrum forwards on the slant.
That was the Pumas scrum as it looked back in 2015, before the Jaguares were formed, before Argentina became part of Super Rugby culture and South Africa headed north. In the final game of the 2022 Rugby Championship, the complexion of the set-piece had changed completely, and not for the better for the men from the Pampas:
Within the first 19 minutes of the game, Argentina had conceded two penalties, one yellow card and a pushover try at the scrum. Compared to Marco Ayerza, 76-cap loose-head Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro does not have the power or the technical ability to maintain his head position underneath the chest of redoubtable Western Province strongman Frans Malherbe.
At two successive scrums he soaks on the hit, he is buckled and his head appears outside the tighthead’s right shoulder – a clear sign of surrender for any top-drawer No 1. At the second of those two set-pieces, Pumas’ flanker Marco Kremer was sin-binned for breaking too desperately onto the ball at the base of the Springbok scrum.
Towards the end of the first quarter, the Argentine scrum suffered the ultimate indignity, giving up an easy pushover try to their opponents in the shadow of the posts:
It would be stretching matters to call the competition between Malherbe and Tetaz a contest. If it was a boxing match, it would already have been stopped to avoid further punishment for the Argentine loosehead. How times have changed!
At one time, Argentine scrummaging was the most feared, and fearsome on the face of planet rugby, and Pumas’ props were the envy of the rugby world. Say their names with reverence: ‘Topo’ Rodriguez, Serafin Dengra, Diego Cash, Patricio Noriega, ‘Freddie’ Mendez, Roberto Grau, Martin Scelzo, Rodrigo Roncero, Omar Hasan, Marcos Ayerza, Ramiro Herrera and Juan Figallo. Even the great garlic-eater himself, Mauricio Reggiardo.
Two of those (Rodriguez and Noriega) were so good that they played both sides of the scrum with equal facility and represented two top-tier countries in their rugby lifetimes. They moved from Argentina in order to coach the Australian scrum, both on and off the field. Both would be shaking their heads ruefully at the state of the Pumas set-piece now.
While Michael Cheika spent most of his time talking about the need for a triple-threat playmaker at No 10 during the latest Rugby Championship squad announcement, the skull beneath the skin passed without comment. The props are either unable to establish themselves as undisputed first choices for their clubs (Bello, Sclavi and Medrano), or past their prime (Tetaz and Gómez Kodela), or dynamic but too small (Thomas Gallo). The essential support for a world-class hooker (Julián Montoya) is conspicuous by its absence.
Whether it is an unintended consequence of the Jaguares’ brief flirtation with Super Rugby or not, Argentine rugby needs to summon the spirit of the bajada, and rediscover its inner duende in order to be a genuine threat at the World Cup. A little more ‘devil’ at scrum-time would go an awfully long way to restoring national pride on the global stage.