If the Pumas spring some surprises over the next few years of the Rugby Championship, significant credit should go to Las Pampas.

No, not the thousands of kilometres of grasslands in inland Argentina, where cattle ranches abound in the agricultural centre of the nation.

Instead Las Pampas is the semi-professional, home-grown outfit that has played the last two seasons of the Vodacom Cup in South Africa, the second-tier competition to the Currie Cup and which is played for by that country's Super Rugby development teams.

Last year, they went unbeaten, trumping the Bulls development team in the final in a display of verve and flair. They captured the imagination back home but their impact goes well beyond national pride.

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For the first time, there is now a genuine, structured step on the pathway from Argentina's amateur leagues to the professional environment.

"Coming out of Argentina used to be a huge jump," said ex-Puma and former Pampas coach Raul Perez. "Now the Pampas provide the stepping stone; it is perfect preparation for professional careers and play in Europe."

Indeed, the 2011 team had to unearth almost a completely new backline, as most of their 2010 unit was snapped up by European clubs. The presence of the Pampas has also given structure where there was previously none. Different groups of the wider squad train regionally throughout the year in Argentina and receive financial and non-financial benefits from the UAR.

"As well as providing a bridge, the Pampas and the Vodacom Cup give us an advantage that will serve us well over the next few years," said former Pumas coach Daniel Baetti. "It widens our playing base."

The new side also gives Pumas coach Santiago Phelan more options. Phelan told the Herald on Sunday that he plans to keep some of his Pumas on ice during the June internationals against Italy and France.

"We will try to use local players and Pampas in the June window," he said. "It is a chance for them to make their claims."

The other obvious benefit gleaned from the Pampas has been the day-in, day-out exposure to the South African rugby machine. Like football in Brazil and cricket in India, South Africa is fanatical about rugby and the young South Americans have soaked it up.

"We have been able to share the rugby experience of South Africa," said Perez, "and there is so much to learn from being exposed to the professional environments over there. All in all, they have helped us a lot - both directly and indirectly - to enter the Rugby Championship."

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