Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Stronger Pumas keen for fight

Facundo Isa has been busy as the Pumas kicked off the Rugby Championship with a narrow loss and win against the Boks. Photo / Photosport
Facundo Isa has been busy as the Pumas kicked off the Rugby Championship with a narrow loss and win against the Boks. Photo / Photosport

Argentina will arrive in New Zealand for their Rugby Championship test against the All Blacks in Hamilton with hope rather than great expectation.

They will arrive minus two of their best players due to injury - lock Tomas Lavanini and wing Manuel Montero - and with the knowledge they have never beaten the All Blacks.

The recent Bledisloe Cup thrashings of the Wallabies by Steve Hansen's men have also done little to help the visitors' confidence.

What they do have, however, is a notable recent scalp in South Africa - their 26-24 win in Salta last weekend the second time they have beaten the Springboks. They are also vastly wiser following the Jaguares' inclusion in Super Rugby this sea-son which tested them to the limit, especially their depth and ability to cope with the travel and long periods on the road.

Rugby is on the rise in Argentina, though. There have been growing pains but the key point is that the game is growing.

The Jaguares won only four of 15 matches but the Pumas' recent victory over South Africa was testament to their improved mental strength and ability to change plans on the fly, and has been claimed by Argentina Rugby Union boss Greg Peters as one of the benefits of being included at the top table.

"It's clear Super Rugby has helped us learn a lot about rugby this year, in terms of the intensity of the competition week in and week out, and facing adversity like we all do in the Southern Hemisphere, whether it be travel or the toughness of the competition," Peters said.

"And playing the best players in the world has certainly helped us learn and grow, to the extent that in last weekend's game when we suffered a lot of changes and personnel on the pitch in the last quarter of the game - two first-string goalkickers not on the pitch, a reshuffled backline - those sorts of things would have thrown us completely off the rails a little while ago but we coped with that and I think there will be further evidence of us learning and growing throughout the Rugby Championship.

"Some of the pundits at the start of the season had us in finals contention, and I think the Australian CEO [Bill Pulver] said we might win it. I never thought that would be the case.

"Adapting to the rigours of Super Rugby takes time and for our players who have not played professional rugby week in and week out before, it was always going to be tough. For us to come through this season was a very positive learning for us.

"We started off on a high with that first win in our first game [against the Cheetahs in Port Elizabeth]. If we were totally honest with ourselves, we probably got a little ahead of ourselves in terms of expectations, learned the hard way during the middle of the competition, and came back pretty strongly at the end. That shows what we could do."

The Pumas also showed what they could do at the last World Cup. Pushing the All Blacks close in their first pool game before falling to a 26-16 defeat, they were superb in their 43-20 quarter-final win over Ireland at a frenzied Millennium Stadium before losing 15-29 in the semifinals to Australia, a disappointing end given the skill and ambition with which they had played throughout.

"It was great to be part of the top four countries in the world at that time - all semifinalists from the Southern Hemisphere - it was very exciting," Peters said.

"I think there has been a big change in the style of our rugby since 2012 when we came into the Rugby Championship. We've seen the Pumas' style of rugby change from perhaps a more European style to a more Southern Hemisphere style.

"We've now just got to get that balance for the Jaguares in Super Rugby - from trying to run everything to a more balanced style."

Peters, a New Zealander who is a former chief executive of Sanzar and the Hurricanes, said the game in Argentina was in good health, with a lot of young talent on the rise.

"The numbers [of youths playing the game] have have grown considerably - 35 per cent since 2008. After the Pumas came third in the [2007] Rugby World Cup, things really started to kick off here.

"The vast majority of players in the Pumas squad have come through our high performance systems. The average age of the squad is 23-24 so we've got a bright future with some of the talent coming through."

Now they are preparing to test themselves against the world champions, a team on a 13-test winning streak and clearly the world's best.

"Like everyone in world rugby, we realise the All Blacks are the benchmark that everyone aspires to," Peters said. "We'll give it our best crack and one day, it will happen ... hopefully it won't be too far away. It's another level up from the other games we've been playing, there's no doubt about that, but we're up for it."

- NZ Herald

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