As we do at the end of every year with their seasons over till February, we look back at the highs and lows of the Southern Hemisphere season and hand out our verdicts on the big four Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. With less than nine months left before the biggest rugby show on earth, 2018 was a critical year for all four countries and much was learnt about the pecking order in International Rugby, and what we might expect from these four heavyweights once business gets underway in Japan in September.
We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into 2019. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause in 2018 as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in 2019. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it.
Argentina – 7/10
2018 started off poorly for Argentina, picked up dramatically during the Rugby Championship and then slowly faded out again during the November Internationals. However, despite a mixed bag of results Argentina showed plenty of promise and enough signs that they should end up being a serious threat come the World Cup in September, and a major worry for their main Pool C rivals England and France. Some of their traditional strengths have clearly faded dramatically, in particular their prowess at scrum time, however their skills on attack and overall game management have improved dramatically. Add to that a potent threat up front in the second and back rows, and Argentina is not far off from being the complete package. With new Coach Mario Ledesma having been a formidable front rower in his time with the Pumas, we doubt their scrum problems will continue for long. The changes he has already instituted since taking the reins in July have quickly brought positive results.
Argentina started 2018 with a gritty encounter with Wales in June, and while there were some positives at times in defence, the cracks in Argentina’s setup were clear for all to see, especially at scrum time. The following week, saw Argentina cave under concerted Welsh pressure and sadly the Pumas never really looked in contention. It was not an auspicious start to 2018, and led to further calls for Coach Daniel Hourcade to part ways with the Pumas, especially after a string of disappointing results the year before. Argentina’s final Test of the month saw the Pumas put on a disjointed and shambolic display against a rampant Scottish developmental side. Enough was clearly enough and despite his successes with the Pumas in the 2015 World Cup, Hourcade found himself heading for the exit.
His successor, Mario Ledesma brought with him a wealth of international Coaching experience, most recently with Australia’s Wallabies and at Super Rugby level with the Jaguares. Having turned around the Jaguares fortunes to the point where they would end the season with a quarter-final berth, Lesdesma seemed the ideal candidate to inject some much-needed life into the Pumas think tank.
The initial results looked promising as in their first match of the Rugby Championship, Argentina had a half time lead over South Africa’s Springboks. However, the Pumas were still finding their feet in their first outing under new management and South Africa turned the screw on their visitors in the second half and ultimately ran out comfortable winners. In the return fixture, in Argentina the Pumas took no prisoners and put in a blinder of a first half performance which left the Springboks in the dust. This performance continued into the opening stanzas of the second half, but the Springboks soon got over their shell shock and fought back. However, Argentina held firm and their defence was outstanding, allowing them to walk away comfortable winners in the end.
From there Argentina made the long journey to Australasia where their form continued to improve. Although Argentina would lose their opening match with New Zealand, the scoreline did not do the match justice. It was a very spirited performance from Argentina that often put New Zealand under enormous pressure. Argentina were never really out of the match until the final 10 minutes. Up to that point just as you thought New Zealand were about to pull away, Argentina would come storming back into contention. Winger Ramiro Moyano’s try was one of the best of the Tournament. In short it was a classic Test match which kept you on the edge of your seat for a good seventy minutes.
Building on the momentum of the New Zealand Test, the Pumas then travelled to Australia and recorded a famous away win as they put in an impressive performance against a faltering Wallaby side. Australia fought back and looked to snatch the match at the death but some outstanding Pumas defence kept the Wallabies at bay. Winger Bautista Delguy showed in no uncertain terms what a threat he is likely to pose this year in Japan.
Sadly as they tend to do every year in the Rugby Championship, the Pumas seemed to fade out with a whimper in their last two games, made more frustrating for their supporters as these are always home games. The game against New Zealand really exposed the nightmare the Pumas were having at scrum time, as this once potent Argentinian weapon seemed only capable of one direction – backwards. Some pride was restored in the final match of the tournament as they took on the Wallabies, and the Pumas produced a spectacular first half which completely outclassed their visitors. However, after a dressing room roasting from hell, the Wallabies came back fighting. To add to the Pumas difficulties, key playmaker Nicolas Sanchez would play no part in the proceedings after the first 30 minutes of the match due to injury. His replacement Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias made a spectacular entry within seconds of coming onto the pitch by scoring a superb try. However, his game management was simply not the equal of the exceptional Sanchez and despite a healthy 31-7 lead at half time the Pumas structure began to fall apart. The Wallabies took control of the match in the second half and ran in 38 points to Argentina’s 3, turning the match on its head and walking away the winners 45-34.
November saw Argentina feel the effects of an exceptionally long season. Considering that the majority of the Pumas squad are drawn straight from the Argentinian Super Rugby side the Jaguares, it meant that players had been playing non stop high level international rugby since February without a break. Argentina were convincing defensively against Ireland in their November opener, but their scrum was made a mockery of by the Irish. A weary Pumas side ultimately succumbed to the Irish juggernaut by 28-17. From there it was off to France and a gritty encounter in Lille. The Pumas scrum continued to creak and although they showed some resilience in defence, they continued to look like they were running on empty. France were clearly the better side in the final quarter. Their last full Test of the year (we’re not counting the exhibition match in December against the Barbarians) saw them take on Scotland in atrocious conditions at Murrayfield. As a spectacle it had little going for it, and Argentina had clearly run out of steam. It was a poor game from both sides and sadly did not reflect some of the outstanding quality that Argentina had put on display throughout 2018.
Although there were plenty of ups and downs for Argentina in 2018, there were enough highs to clearly demonstrate that under new management Argentina are starting to hit all the right notes just in time for the World Cup. While their scrum needs some desperate work, under the guidance of Coach Mario Ledesma we are fairly certain they will have it sorted in time for the abbreviated Rugby Championship this year.
Perhaps the more pressing problem for Argentina to address is squad fatigue. Their current policy of selecting only Argentinian based players means that there is little to choose from for the selectors when it comes to determining the Pumas makeup. With 90% of the squad being drafted straight from Argentina’s only Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares, player fatigue by the time November rolls around is inevitable. It is a credit to the Pumas that they manage to do as well as they do in the Autumn Internationals. As we head into the buildup to the World Cup this year, Argentina will be able to use more of its overseas based players who are currently lighting up the European club scene. For the World Cup Ledesma will have access to both domestic and foreign based Argentinian players, and as a result the issue of fatigue should be less of a concern come September. With the talent at his disposal and based on some extraordinary performances in 2018, we have a hunch that the Pumas are peaking, as they always seem to do in the last ten years, at just the right time for the World Cup. Their Pool opponents England and France are likely to be having their fair share of sleepless nights as they get closer to Japan. We for one can’t wait to see a “Super” Pumas side in action come the World Cup!
Player of the year – Nicolas Sanchez
There are certain players who are just essential to their side’s success and Sanchez is one of those players. We’ve always been a fan of the Pumas fly half but this year he has really come into his own. His departure from the Pumas final match of the Rugby Championship against Australia showed just how important this player is to Argentina’s performance on the pitch. Without him Argentina lack the structure that played such a part in some of their best performances in 2018. His kicking from the tee in 2018 was for the most part highly reliable while at the same time scoring some of the Pumas most audacious tries last year. In short quality through and through!
Player to watch in 2019 – Bautista Delguy
We were mesmerised by the Pumas speedster in 2018. Fast, difficult to bring down and providing an increasingly solid defensive component for the Pumas, Delguy is likely to grab a lot of headlines once proceedings get underway in Japan in September. He scored some spectacular tries last year, and his ability to counterattack from deep is alarming for opposition defences. This is a quality player who exemplifies how much Argentina can now boast some extraordinary back line players in addition to their traditional bruising packs of forwards.
Match of the year – Australia vs Argentina – Gold Coast – September 15th – Australia 19/Argentina 23
If you want to see the kind of threat Delguy poses look no further than this match. Argentina played a brilliantly controlled match, superbly marshalled by fly half Sanchez and allied to some heroic defence in the last ten minutes. It was a measured and composed Argentinian performance, and perhaps even more important than the victory over South Africa a few weeks earlier, as it showed that the Pumas can travel well and get results. England and France you have been warned!
Next up – Australia!