Pumas chase dream of first win
August 9, 2013
Which position best suits talented Pumas playmaker Juan Martin Hernandez? © Getty Images
The Pumas will return to the spotlight when they contest the Rugby Championship with the three powerhouses of the southern hemisphere: New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. They'll no longer be the new team or the surprise package, having made their Rugby Championship debut last year, and Santiago Phelan's team will now have to produce a leap in their level of quality if they are to record their first win in the tournament.
Last year, the Pumas were defeated 27-6 by the Springboks in Cape Town before managing a historic 16-16 tie against the same team in Mendoza. But after that, four straight losses followed against Australia and New Zealand. Still, the outcome was considered positive because they were able to hold their own in the world's toughest tournament.
But that is now in the past. Now they're in for a new adventure. The players and coaches are well aware it will be difficult to conjure a repeat showing not only because their rivals are aware of what to expect from the team and a visit to Argentina, but also because the All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks arrive in better condition and with their key players in shape.
Phelan has opted for a squad with a mix of experience and youth perhaps even more than before. Two historic figures will play in the Rugby Championship for the first time: Felipe Contepomi and Gonzalo Tiesi. "Dr. Phil," as he was known during his stint with Irish province Leinster, decided not to play in 2012 because he wanted to rest after a very physically-demanding year. Now, with 35 years and 81 Test matches under his belt, he wants to add a finishing touch to his hugely-influential international career. Tiesi, for his part, is fully recovered after a string of injuries and warmed up for his Championship bow with appearances during last November's international window and the more recent June clashes with England.
The other first-timers in the tournament will be flanker Benjamin Macome, who caught the eye against England earlier this year, second row Mariano Galarza, prop Nahuel Lobo, fullback Joaquin Tuculet and two rising stars: Matias Diaz and Pablo Matera. Both of them played in the last two Junior Rugby World Championships, and were key figures for Los Pumitas. They were the big surprises in Phelan's selection because they still don't have any Test match experience.
Rodrigo Roncero is without a doubt the most noticeable absentee having retired since starring in last year's tournament. Marcos Ayerza, considered one of the best in his position in the Premiership, will have his chance to make the loose-head shirt his own.
The others who won't be playing having missed out on Phelan's selection are Maxi Bustos, Martin Bustos Moyano, Tomas Leonardi, Nicolas Vergallo, Rafael Carballo, Tomas De la Vega, Agustin Figuerola, Bruno Postiglioni, Tomas Leonardi and Tomas Vallejos Cinalli.
The big mystery, as before the 2007 World Cup under previous coach Marcelo Loffreda, is where Juan Martin Hernandez will play. "The Wizard" played most of the season at fullback for French side Racing Métro, and also in last year's games against Wales and Ireland, but in the Rugby Championship he was the first-choice No.10. Phelan is yet to decide as to where to deploy him.
His main rival for the fly-half position is Nicolas Sanchez, a talented young player from Tucuman, who has scored 49 points - including one try in his eight Test matches. The Bordeaux Begles player was productive when handed a start against the Springboks in Mendoza and also produced a great performance in the Pumas' memorable victory against Wales at Cardiff's Millennium in November.
Contepomi and Santiago Fernandez could also play fly-half, but the real debate is between Hernandez and Sanchez.
The Pumas' goal is to notch their first win in the tournament, something they came very close to doing in 2012, but ultimately fell short. They have never defeated New Zealand and South Africa, and they haven't won a match against Australia since 1997. And while they'll no longer be able to rely on an element of surprise, they will have also learnt a lot from their Championship bow in terms of what it takes to succeed and about the need to rotate their players more and have more options, especially in the backs.
The leadership of players like Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Patricio Albacete in the pack will be decisive, and whatever Hernández, Contepomi, Horacio Agulla, Marcelo Bosch, Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino and Juan Imhoff can offer will also be crucial among the backs.
"The internal competition is increasing. It's getting more and more difficult to pick the squads and teams, and that's very good," said Phelan.
The Pumas feel they can keep up and even win in a tournament of global significance - now they need to prove it on the field.
Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are assured of warm welcome in Argentina © Getty Images
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