With the opening round of the Rugby Championship looming this weekend, we are previewing each of the four competing nations. New Zealand have dominated the tournament, winning five of the six incarnations since Argentina were added to the enlarged Tri-Nations in 2012, but can the Wallabies, Springboks or the Pumas break the All Blacks’ dominance this year?
Can it get any worse? When the Pumas were admitted to the enlarged Tri-Nations it was hailed as a glorious new era for Argentine rugby. But instead it proved the most hollow of false dawns. Since entrance was granted Argentina have finished last every year except 2015, and won just three matches out of the 33 contested, including one draw. The Pumas desperately need to find a way to turn it around. Can they ride on the back of the Jaguares’ success in Super Rugby to a much-improved performance in 2018?
Experienced captain Agustin Creevy will carry the workload upfront but it is veteran fly-half Nicolas Sanchez who dictates what happens when the ball comes out the back. The 29-year-old playmaker enjoyed a celebrated run in French rugby with Bordeaux and Toulon before returning to join the Jaguares in their first season in 2016. He was instrumental to everything good the Jaguares did this year, finishing fifth of the top point scorers table with 161 points.
Utility back Emiliano Boffelli was one of the most exciting ball runners in Super Rugby this year with 10 tries (sixth overall), 28 clean breaks (also sixth) and 65 defenders beaten (seventh). The Rosario-born 23-year-old is a homegrown talent having played all his rugby in Argentina to date, either with his hometown club Duendes or the Jaguares. Has played 14 times for the Pumas already, scoring six tries.
Traditionally the Pumas’ strengths are the pack, and especially at scrum time with the much feared “bajada” (or eight-man shove). But over the last few years there has been less focus on the set-piece in favour of an open ball-in-hand game plan, which has been entertaining but not effective in terms of results. However, Pumas have developed many enthralling ball runners.
As new Pumas coach Mario Ledesma has openly admitted, the biggest problem with Argentina is their defence. A lack of application and organisation has seen them leak an average of 33 points per game in their last 12 matches. You simply cannot win Test matches regularly when you leak that many points. They need to tighten up this facet of their game.
After a superb season with the Jaguares in Super Rugby, where he took them to their first-ever playoff match, former Pumas hooker and Wallabies assistant coach Ledesma has been given the national reigns after the sudden departure of Daniel Hourcade after Argentina’s disastrous June series, where they lost heavily to an under-strength Wales (twice) and Scotland. Can he work the same magic in The Rugby Championship?
WHAT THEY SAID
“We need to get back to the fundamentals of our game.
The top teams have a very effective bench. That, for example, is the difference between the three great sides in the southern hemisphere and teams like France, Wales and England.”
– Mario Ledesma, coach
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RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP RECORD
The former Springbok captain has been out of action for nine months‚ after suffering shoulder nerve damage playing against Wales in Cardiff last November.
Due to problems with the nerve, his recovery hit several setbacks along the way taking far longer than expected.
Erasmus confirmed the news on Monday in Durban, where the team gathered in the build-up to the weekend’s opening Rugby Championship match against Argentina.
“Yes, Eben is available and we will be looking at starting him instead of playing him from the bench,” Erasmus said.
“We got the clearance from the specialist so he is ready to go.
“He is fit and strong and has been functional for a while, and he has been with us at Stellenbosch for a few weeks where he has been training full-on.”
Argentina look out!— Sky Sports Rugby (@SkySportsRugby) August 13, 2018
Eben Etzebeth is set to play his first competitive game of rugby in 10 months when he starts for the @Springboks in their Rugby Championship opener against @UnionArgentina on Saturday.
Full story: https://t.co/khoXm6n1zW pic.twitter.com/7l0ITP3RqZ
Erasmus added that he will have to manage the game time of several players, especially those who have played a lot of Super Rugby this year.
“Players such as Elton Jantjies, Franco Mostert and RG Snyman have seen a lot of action and clocked a lot of playing time, so we will have to be sensible in how we manage them especially at the beginning of the campaign,” he said.
“It can mean that perhaps they would not be in the selection mix for this weekend. We are playing Argentina twice in two weeks, travelling over there next week, so we will have to factor all of those things when we look at the first two matches.”
Erasmus cautioned that Argentina will be a tough nut to crack over the next two weeks: “They have a new coach in Mario Ledesma, who will energise the team and if you look at how well the Jaguares performed this year – they were unbeaten on tour through Australasia and beat all of the South African teams – then there is no doubt that we are in for two very tough, competitive Pumas matches.”
The Springbok team to face Argentina will be names on Thursday evening (UAE time).
Haskell was given the first extended summer break of his career when he was rested for the June tour to South Africa and the veteran flanker took the opportunity to complete a dance music production course, travel and recover from the previous season.
The most daunting moment came in May when he took to the decks as the headline DJ at the Nation Federation of Young Farmers Clubs Annual Convention in Blackpool.
“It was incredible and probably the closest thing to playing a game,” said Haskell, who is preparing for his debut season at Northampton.
“You walk out at Twickenham to 80,000 people and don’t notice the crowd. When I walked out in Blackpool – and I underestimated this – there were 4,000 people and me.
“Their whole night was being defined whether I played good or bad music so when they start reacting well, it’s the best feeling in the world.
“When you DJ and play great music it makes you feel a million dollars, which is quite a nice experience.
“For the first time in my career I have had five weeks off, so maximised that. I followed the guys in South Africa, but I haven’t had too much to concern myself with.
“I’ve looked after my body and tried to switch off. Having been at Wasps for 12 years in total, I wanted to make sure I started at Saints in a good place.”