Leaping into the unknown
Ramiro Guillot / ESPN Deportes
August 15, 2012
Santiago Phelan is the mastermind behind the Pumas © Getty Images
The first date marked in red within the 2012 calendar is just around the corner - August 18. It's in Cape Town's Newlands Stadium that the much anticipated clash of the giants will materialise - the Pumas will make their debut in the 2012 Rugby Championship.
"The Springboks are a very powerful team, they play a very head-on style of rugby, and are always essentially trying to impose their physical presence," said Santiago Phelan, head coach of the Argentine national team, in one of the charming rooms of the huge and luxurious hotel. "They also kick a lot and have a strong game in the air, either by kicking for touch or scrambling for high balls. That is their way out of their half. In short, they are a very complete team; very powerful forward pack and have very skilled backs which can develop a more dynamic game."
What do you identify as the weak spot in the South African team?
"We're developing a way to play against them, trying to find the places of the field in which they can be broken," Phelan told ESPN. "Ball control will be of great influence; we have to focus on getting the ball so we can move them a bit in order to open up spaces, which, as we saw, sometimes do appear."
Phelan, who has an enviable CV for the Argentine team - 43 caps and two Rugby World Cups-, stressed that it is very important for his team to be able to read the match they are contesting. "We must be observant, because opportunities of attack may come up, especially through the widest areas of the field. But on the flip side, we must also be able to control them. The truth is that these teams are very strong, and one-on-one they are better. That's why we should be smart and get a good reading of the game during the match. That's when we must decide which of our tools are better suited to play against them."
The former winger also spoke of the scoreboard. "During the match, it is essential to be within touching distance on the scoreboard. It doesn't matter if we're up or down; the key is to be close. Because it's in those cases that games can be played evenly. When you lose the lead and let the other team grow, it's very dangerous. And more so against these types of teams; they never get tired of attacking. That's why you have to be very focused and well prepared to withstand the onslaught of your opponent."
The head coach revealed the starting line-up to his players on Tuesday, before the evening practice in Crawford. But for two positions that were still in doubt, for which Alvaro Galindo and Santiago Fernández were confirmed as flanker and center, respectively, the team's make-up was as expected. Likewise, it wasn't surprising that, given the physical severity that South Africa will attempt to establish, the coaches decided to pick a bench with five forwards - three are front-rowers: Bruno Postiglioni, Marcos Ayerza and Juan Pablo Orlandi - and only two backs.
Phelan explained this decision saying: "We need to keep players fresh, in good condition, to be able to develop our game and be effective, particularly in gaining possession. And we think that to achieve this, it is more important to have a full front-row in reserve due to the physical wear that the forwards will suffer."
The Pumas will hope their goal-kicker Juan Martin Hernandez is playing at his very best © Getty Images
Will place kicking be assigned to Juan Martín Hernández?
Phelan: "In principle, he will be in charge of kicking; that's his responsibility. We also have Lucas [González Amorosino], who kicks off his left foot and serves as an alternative in the game. And on the bench we'll have Martin Rodríguez [Gurruchage], who's also a very good kicker."
With just three days before kick-off, how would you describe the team?
"It is in a very good condition to meet the challenge. All the preparation was done with great sacrifice and, above all, it was very conscientious. Because the truth is that this group needed to train very hard to get to this point. Perhaps the only drawback was the lack of international-level intensity, but in our last two games against Stade Francais, we began to find it."
Is there confidence in the team?
"Absolutely! And it is very important, vital, for a team to have confidence in everything it does. And I can confirm that the Pumas have it."
What about anxiety?
"There's also that, and it makes sense. That's one of the things we've been telling the players - they must stay calm, because anxiety can sometimes act against you."
Is the tension higher, lower or the same to that of a World Cup debut?
"They are different experiences. A World Cup is a World Cup and nothing can compare to it. And this tournament is something new, and ultimately we'll only be able to draw some conclusions when it ends. Because, sitting here today, we're about to live through something that we haven't previously experienced. Obviously, this curiosity brings on adrenaline, excitement, expectation and desire, but the truth is that we still don't know for sure what it will be like to play in it."
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