Argentina’s lowly 10th place in the world rankings belies their World Cup credentials but the Pumas should be eyeing a spot in the knock-out stages in Japan.
The Pumas have reached the semi-final stage in two of the last three editions of the competition and Ireland fans will certainly remember how they destroyed the boys in green in their 2015 quarter-final encounter in Cardiff.
Recent form may suggest an Argentina side off the pace compared to those dazzling heights they scaled four years ago, but the South American outfit have proved not to be overlooked come the grand stage.
Since reaching the last four in 2015, Argentina have won just eight of 39 matches, which is a meagre 20 per cent success rate. To break that down even further, they have won an average of just three games a year out of possible 13 fixtures.
And despite sealing just two victories out of a possible 12 last season, Mario Ledesma’s side recorded their best ever Rugby Championship performance before losing three games in a row against Ireland, France and Scotland in November.
There is no shame in losing to Ireland, but defeats by France and Scotland cast doubts on their chances ahead of the World Cup, where they have been drawn in a competitive pool with England, France, the United States and Tonga.
They have shown they can go toe-to-toe with the elite sides in the world but recent narrow losses against New Zealand and Australia in June leave them with little time to gain momentum going into a tough World Cup group.
With a final Rugby Championship encounter against South Africa at home this weekend, Ledesma’s men need to fire at setpiece time, where they have struggled in recent weeks, or they risk losing more confidence ahead of their crucial pool opener against France in six weeks time.
It’s likely the winner of that opening fixture will take runner-up spot in Pool C behind England.
A recall of experienced European-based players could be the difference between winning and losing against the big boys in Japan.
Los Pumas’ had previously been made up of players solely from the Jaguares’ team, who reached the Super Rugby final for the first time this year, but those rules have relaxed over recent times.
Pablo Matera, Emiliano Boffelli, Tomas Lavanini, Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, Matias Orlando, Matias Moroni and Guido Petti all starred for the Buenos Aires-based side this year, as they defeated three of the five Kiwi franchises and topped the South African conference en route to the league decider.
The evolution of the Jaguares is symbolic of how the international squad has improved and adapted to the rigours of southern hemisphere rugby over the years. What is also significant is how previously underrated players have developed into stars of the competition.
Captain Matera, for example, has blossomed into one of the competition’s best flankers, and rarely has a bad game whether its in the black and orange of Jaguares or sky blue of Argentina.
Of the European-based players, Juan Figallo (Saracens), Ramiro Herrera (Stade Francais), Facundo Isa (Toulon), Nicolas Sanchez (Stade Francais) and Benjamin Urdapilleta (Castres) are some of the names that add experience and class to Ledesma’s squad.
Widely regarded for their prowess up front, Argentina have developed a more open style of play in recent years, with record points scorer Sanchez pulling the strings from No10. His fast hands, clever kicking and ability to exploit space will be pivotal to how their elusive back-line fare.
Backed by a new spirit instilled by coach Ledesma, the Argies should hopefully hit performances of the right note come their September 20 showdown against Les Bleus.
A lot will rest on that opening game, and if the sky blue and whites can prevail, then a fifth quarter-final in six tournaments should be viewed as a positive campaign.
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Rory Best has challenged Ireland to justify their 2018 Six Nations Grand Slam at this year’s World Cup.
The Ireland captain believes Joe Schmidt’s men must seize the “reality check” of turning last term’s Grand Slam into a third-place finish this year.
The 36-year-old hooker insisted Ireland are the hungriest he has seen them under head coach Schmidt, ahead of Saturday’s opening World Cup warm-up match against Italy in Dublin.
“When Joe first came in the big question was ‘how do we perceive ourselves?’, and the big answer was ‘inconsistent’,” said Best.
“And what we’ve worked hard to do is to prepare the same whoever we play and whatever we do.
“That’s how it’s always been under Joe and we certainly won’t go away from that now.
“It sometimes takes a reality check, and finishing third was bitterly disappointing.
“So coming in at the start of this pre-season everyone is as hungry as I have ever seen them.
“We’ve had a group of players that want to prove that the 2019 Six Nations was the blip, not 2018.”
Ireland host Italy at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday to kick-start their build-up to the World Cup in Japan.
Schmidt’s side will launch their World Cup bid by taking on Scotland on September 22, with confidence still riding high among Irish fans of a Best-ever tournament.
Best and company will face Wales twice and England in completing their warm-up matches before jetting out to Japan.
The long-serving Ulster hooker will be 37 by the time the tournament kicks off but admitted feeling as good as ever amid a gruelling pre-season.
Schmidt’s men are once again bidding to move beyond the quarter-finals for first time, but the Irish public have high confidence their side could even lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
New Zealand are seeking a hat-trick of World Cup titles on the run, with Best admitting the All Blacks are still favourites for yet another crown.
But Best also predicted the most open World Cup yet, with Grand Slam champions Wales and a burgeoning England and South Africa also in contention.
Asked if the Irish public confidence adds pressure or belief, Best replied: “It’s probably a bit of extra belief. Our biggest pressure comes internally.
“New Zealand are the Best team in the world and they are the favourites. But I also think this will be one of the most open World Cups.
“Anyone will feel they can beat anyone on their day. And it’s great that Ireland can be one of those teams.
“But we also know that, look at Wales and England in the Six Nations, we can lose to those teams too.”
Best believes Ireland’s maiden two victories over back-to-back world champions New Zealand, in Chicago in 2016 and Dublin in autumn 2018, have offered significant confidence boosts.
“That first victory against New Zealand, in Chicago, it felt like we pushed through a ceiling,” said Best, speaking as a FloGas ambassador.
“But it was hugely important to get the second one, to prove again that we can do it.
“We want to be a team that can prove we can beat anyone and we’ve not just shown it once, we’ve shown it twice now.”
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Italy coach Conor O’Shea cut a forlorn figure in the stands as the Azzurri crashed to another heavy defeat in this year’s Six Nations.
The word coming out of Rome is that his industrious work at grassroots level may come to fruition down the line, but it is unlikely the Irishman will still be at the helm to witness it.
With the prospect of facing both New Zealand and South Africa in the World Cup pool stages, there is little hope of Italy reaching a first quarter-final on their ninth tournament appearance.
The Azzurri, who have slumped to 14th in the world rankings, should finish third in Pool B, if they beat Namibia and Canada.
However, they come into the tournament on the back of a difficult 20 months, which highlighted their diminishing status on the international stage and reviving questions about whether they should be replaced by Georgia in the Six Nations.
O’Shea’s side managed just two wins in 11 games in 2018, a narrow triumph in Japan and a home victory over Georgia, but were otherwise well beaten in all other matches except for a slender three point defeat to Scotland.
In the 2019 Six Nations, they were beaten in all five of their matches, scoring 79 points and conceding 167. In saying that, however, it’s the least number of points they have shipped in a campaign since O’Shea took over as head coach in March 2016.
Their average defeat this year so far is a 33-16 loss, although they only conceded more than 30 points in two matches, against Scotland (33-20) and England (57-14).
That points to a limited attack and creaking defence, with little time to fix things in the warm-up matches before the World Cup.
Their style of play is based on a dominant set-piece, with the pack having been the jewel in their crown for many years now. But if Italy can barely threaten the line and then tire out with the speed of the opposition’s attacking play, then it is only a matter of time before they are opened up in matches.
A couple of younger exciting players like Matteo Minozzi and Braam Steyn, though, should add some firepower during the World Cup, but against the All Blacks and Springboks they are likely to struggle.
While Italy may have only won six out of 33 matches since O’Shea’s arrival, it’s worth looking at club sides Zebre and Benetton to see true signs of rugby’s development in Italy.
The former Irish international was tasked with one of the most difficult jobs in world rugby when he took up the role over three years ago after the Azzurri had finished bottom of the Six Nations again.
And, although many onlookers will point to his paltry 18 per cent win record as a sign of little progress, positive changes are starting to show for the PRO14 sides.
Benetton reached the PRO14 quarter-finals for the first time this year, while Zebre slipped back after winning a club record seven matches in the 2017/18 campaign.
Fresh from their historic run to the league quarters, Benetton account for 50 per cent of the Italian World Cup training squad with 22 call-ups.
Captain Sergio Parisse, who currently plys his trade with Toulon, is in the running for his fifth World Cup tournament while two other veterans, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Alessandro Zanni, are chasing their fourth appearance.
There are returns for Marco Fuser, Rernato Giammarioli, Marco Lazzaroni and Giosue Zilocchi, while Mattia Bellini, Giovanni Licata, Minozzi, Marcello Violi and Zani return to the squad following injury.
There are also three uncapped players included in scrum-half Callum Braley, hooker Enjiel Makelara and prop Marco Riccioni.
O’Shea’s men face Ireland (August 10), Russia (August 17), France (August 30) and England (September 6) in the build-up to the World Cup.
With signs of progress beginning to show, Italian club rugby is certainly in its most promising place yet. But whether O’Shea sees out another few years in the Italian capital is another story altogether, with a decision to be made later in the year.
After a disappointing Six Nations, two wins from their four matches in the World Cup should have the Azzurri leaving Japan with confidence and knowing that they fulfilled their potential on the grand stage.
Union: Federazione Italiana Rugby
Head coach: Conor O’Shea
Captain: Sergio Parisse
Most caps: Sergio Parisse (134)
Top scorer: Diego Dominguez (983)
Top try scorer: Marcello Cuttitta (25)
Home stadium: Stadio Olimpico
Star man: Sergio Parisse
Best finish: Pool stages (1987, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015)
Fixtures: Namibia (September 22), Canada (September 26), South Africa (October 4), New Zealand (October 12)
DID YOU KNOW?
Italy crashed to a comprehensive 101-0 defeat against South Africa in Durban in June 1999 – their heaviest ever loss.