In what was a breakthrough year for the Jaguares in Super Rugby, one man led the way in a thrilling style that took the Argentinian side all the way to the playoffs for the first time in their history – Emiliano Boffelli.
The Rosario-born 23-year-old built on an impressive second season in 2017 to firmly establish himself as one of the most exciting runners in the southern hemisphere, scoring 10 tries, making 28 clean breaks and beating no fewer than 65 defenders.
And Boffelli has been just as impressive at international level.
He made his Test debut in June last year against England, and although the Pumas lost the first nine matches he played, Boffelli stamped himself as a player of true class, crossing for tries in his first three Tests.
Indeed his performances were so good in a misfiring national team that he was nominated for the World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year last year along with Frenchman Damian Penaud and the winner, All Blacks flyer Rieko Ioane.
#RugbyChampionship🏉 | #LosPumas🇦🇷 tienen equipo confirmado para jugar contra los All Blacks en Nueva Zelanda🇳🇿 este sábado desde las 4.35 am (ARG)— Sports Angle (@SportsAngleBlog) September 7, 2018
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He has continued that form and more this season.
Comfortable on the wing, at full-back and even outside centre, Boffelli has all the skills.
Searing pace, superb in possession and he can even give the great Izzy Folau a run for his money when it comes to taking a high ball.
Boffelli uses speed and guile to outfox defenders rather than power. He is tall and rangy at 1.91m and just 93kgs. Compare that to Folau who is 1.94m and 103kgs.
A product of the Argentina youth system, Boffelli represented his country at U18, U19 and U20 level before a knee injury threatened to sideline him indefinitely.
But he came back stronger and quicker than ever as his performances this year attest.
The former Duendes club star puts a lot of his success down to his growing relationship with new Pumas boss, and former Wallabies forward coach, Mario Ledesma.
He also credits Ledesma’s assistants, former Pumas scrum-half Nicolás Fernández Miranda and centre Martín Gaitán.
“We are getting to know each other more and more,” Boffelli told La Nacion recently.
“The coaches try to force us to maintain the identity, with madness and laburo (hard work). It’s about running up to drink water and to get together. I know of their histories: they were tremendous players. And as coaches they are very successful.
“You can see they know a lot about rugby. I’m sure they’re going to do the team very well. So I’m really looking forward to this new stage, to learn and get the most out of Mario [Ledesma] and Nico [Fernández Miranda].
“I hope they teach me and I learn from them as much as possible.”
The toughest decision for Ledesma currently is where to play Boffelli. The versatile Puma has switched seamlessly between wing, centre and full-back for the Jaguares.
But now with No1 Argentina full-back Joaquín Tuculet out for the year after rupturing the anterior ligament of his knee against the Chiefs in May, Ledesma has mainly used Boffelli in the No15 jersey.
It was a position Boffelli excelled in as the Pumas upset the Boks in Mendoza 32-19, running for 63 metres, making two clean breaks, beating four defenders as well making two offloads.
A lot of the good things the Pumas did that day started and ended with Boffelli, as he won his first Rugby Championship match at eight attempts – and just his second Test win in 16, the other coming against Italy in Firenze in November last year.
There has clearly been a marked improvement since Ledesma took over the national coaching reigns back in June after long term coach Daniel Hourcade stepped down. Boffelli though deflects criticism away from his former mentor.
“If there is something that should not be reproached is the relationship (with Hourcade),” he says.
“The group is very close; the players, very close together, and the relationship of the coaches with the players is very good, there is a lot moving forward.
“We hope to continue having in 2018 that mystique that is in the team to get the best way to 2019.”
Despite the losing-streak breaking win against the Boks, Boffelli says the team must improve more against the All Blacks on Saturday.
“Without doubts, we have to improve in many things,” he says.
“It was shown that many times it does not reach what we do. But the team knows what it practices, knows what it points to, and that’s the most important thing.
“Luckily, we have time until the World Cup to reverse some things, and I think the team is very motivated and eager to learn. That has been showing the Pumas in recent years.”
Surprisingly for a team once known for its physical strength, Boffelli now feels that is one area the Pumas need to work on.
“There are teams that make a lot of difference in the physical,” he explains.
“We are faced with very tough opponents, but the team felt very good physically last year. The tiredness was noticed at the end of the year, because the same team plays many games.”
Boffelli says there is now more focus on the Pumas kicking game.
“In the tactical part, the foot was used more to get better out of our (part of the) field and not to wear out,” he says. “Before we tried a lot more to play in our field and we wore a lot.
“We tried looking for spaces in (the defensive line), where they really were not.
“Using the foot we left better out of our field and, without complicating us, we put ourselves in a situation of pressure to the rival.”
Boffelli began his Test career with a try scoring rush – three tries in three games. But since then he has failed to score in the next 13 Tests. He would like nothing more than a try on Saturday.
“I had my debut in 2017 in the Pumas and in the match in which I debuted I made a try, and in the next one, too,” he recalls.
“Then, I made another at the beginning of the Championship. I found that in three Test matches I had three tries. I could not believe it.
“For a wing to do tries is always very nice. Hopefully more will come (in this year’s Rugby Championship).”
Boffelli finished 2017 by being awarded a sliver Premios Olimpia (Olimpia Award), Argentina’s top sporting awards given annually by the Círculo de Periodistas Deportivos (Association of Sports Journalists) since 1954.
It will no doubt be the first of many awards in this talented young player’s career.
“They try to bludgeon you,” Genia told Sport360 from Brisbane.
“When you play against the All Blacks it’s the speed and the tempo of the game but with the Springboks – one thing I remember from playing against them is just how physical it is.
“Once they start getting on top of you physically they can certainly hurt you.”
After two tough losses against New Zealand, and the end of a 16th straight unsuccessful Bledisloe Cup campaign, Genia could almost be excused for feeling a little relieved that the All Blacks are in the rearview mirror.
But the now Melbourne Rebels No9 says he will prepare no differently than if he was facing the world champions.
“I can only speak on my behalf,” says the 92-Test veteran says, who will take to the field on Saturday at 14:00 UAE time. “But the thing is for me it’s a Test match, regardless of who you’re playing – and (we’re) coming up against traditionally one of the best teams that play the game.
“For me it’s a big Test match whether it’s the All Blacks or South Africa, England, whoever it is – I certainly don’t approach it any differently and it doesn’t feel any different.
“When you play against the All Blacks there’s always that cap hanging over your head that you haven’t won the (Bledisloe) Cup in 16 years but in terms of the match itself and approaching it any differently, it’s definitely not.”
The Wallabies and Springboks could not be closer matched currently, with the teams unable to be separated in both Rugby Championship matches last year – a 23-all draw in Perth followed by a 27-all draw in Bloemfontein.
“I think it displays where both teams are at in terms of regeneration and building,” agrees Genia.
“They’ve obviously had to have a number of new guys come in as well to their squad.
“You look at the World Cup in 2015, there were a lot of older stars (Bryan Habana, Schalk Burger and Bismarck du Plessis to name a few), now there’s a lot of new blood coming in who are fresh in the international arena.
“So I think it’s a very good indication of where both teams are at.”
The 30-year-old has some great memories of playing against the Boks, including his second Test, which was played against South Africa at the picturesque Newlands in Cape Town.
“I was honestly just so amazed by the atmosphere,” he recalls.
“I was 21-years old and I couldn’t believe I was so lucky just to be there to be playing against guys like Victor Matfield, Bakkies (Botha), Bryan Habana.
“I remember speaking to Matt Giteau before the game and just saying to him I really want to get out on the park and get into it. I remember getting 15 to 20 minutes (he came on for Luke Burgess as a second-half replacement in the 55th minute) and I think I handled myself okay.
“I remember thinking ‘I can actually do this. I can handle myself at this level. I can make it.’
“So it was a pretty significant game on top of the fact that you’re in Cape Town, you’re playing the Springboks at this amazing stadium with this incredible atmosphere.”
His favourite memory however of playing against the Springboks is not the David Pocock-inspired victory in the quarter-finals of the 2011 Rugby World Cup. It was his first-ever Test start, less than a month after that game in Cape Town, at his favourite ground.
“My first international Test match start was actually against the Boks at Suncorp in 2009,” he says. “So that would be the one I remember the most.
“It was my first start and I ended up with man of the match that day (so) it was certainly something I won’t forget.
“It was one of those games where I don’t remember being nervous at all. I just remember thinking ‘I want get out there and do what I do’.
“I felt like I belonged because the group (captained by George Smith) made me feel that way.
“It was a really special day, Suncorp was my home ground, there was probably no better place to have my first international start.”
The Springboks are also close to Genia’s heart as they once boasted the player who the 2011 Super Rugby winner regards as “the greatest half-back of all time” – Fourie du Preez.
“He’s the one I think is the best ever, without question,” enthuses Genia. “And not just in South Africa, ever.
“He’s the guy I admired greatly as a young half-back coming through, and someone I felt I could base my game around.
“He was the complete half-back who had everything – he could pass, he could run, he was a bit of a playmaker, he managed to control the game, more often than not he always made the right decision.
“Coming up against him, (which he did seven times in his career) was a thrill but it was also an incredibly tough ask – not just for me but for any Wallaby team that I was part of.”
Wallabies fans have cause for optimism on Saturday as the man affectionately known as “Sanchez” has played the Boks five times in Brisbane for four wins and just one loss.
He also scored one of his two tries against the Boks in Brisbane, in 2010, darting over from close range in the last five minutes to put the gloss on an impressive 30-13 victory.
Papua New Guinea-born Genia shares the positivity about bouncing back post-Bledisloe.
“The results (against the All Blacks) were incredibly disappointing,” he acknowledges. “But it’s all about perseverance.
“We love what we do. We feel so grateful and so privileged for what we are able to do and representing our country.
“It’s never lost on us how important that is, so we always make sure we are as well prepped as we can possibly be to play and that certainly is going to be the case for the remainder of the Rugby Championship.
“There’s obviously going to be pressure on us to perform and to win and to get some results, but no more than the pressure that we put on ourselves.
“So we’re looking forward to ripping in and making sure that we play some good rugby and get some results.”
Ashton was given a seven-week ban for a tip-tackle on Rory Kockott made during Sale’s pre-season friendly against Castres last month, preventing him from playing in the first six matches of the club season.
However, due to a discrepancy with the Sharks’ fixture list his return date has been moved from October 9 to October 16.
The dual code international had penciled in the Challenge Cup clash with Perpignan four days earlier to make his Sale debut, but that door has been closed by the adjustment.
It means he will not have played a game by the time Eddie Jones names his squad for the autumn series against South Africa, New Zealand, Japan and Australia on October 18.
Jones strongly hinted on Wednesday that he would select the former Saracens and Toulon wing in his training squad for England’s camp in Bristol later this month anyway, but his match inactivity remains a blow.
“Due to a change to Sale Sharks’ fixture list, Ashton’s suspension will now run until Monday 15 October,” a Rugby Football Union statement read.
Ashton won the last of his 39 caps in 2014 and has yet to make an appearance under Jones after receiving a total of 23 weeks of suspensions in 2016.