Last weekend saw Argentina lose their fifth match in a row in this year’s Rugby Championship, against a team that they probably fancied their chances against earlier this summer. Such hopes seem to have been well and truly dashed, as their campaign seems destined to stagger to a miserable end on Saturday against the Wallabies. It’s very hard to recognize the Pumas side that stunned the world last year by beating the All Blacks in their first match out of their year long Covid isolation. There are glimmers of hope and we’d argue that this isn’t a bad Argentinian side, but for reasons best known to perhaps only themselves they are simply failing to fire a shot so far this tournament.
Australia on the other hand seem to be going from strength to strength, something that their long suffering supporters are clearly rejoicing at. Although the All Blacks are still out of reach, it’s hard to argue against this Australian side not being a match for the rest of Test rugby’s giants. In short, they must be feeling more than just a little excited about their journey to Europe next month and the prospect of duels with Japan, Scotland, England and Wales.
This weekend’s final Rugby Championship match for both Argentina and Australia, sees Australia trying to cement a strong second place finish, while Argentina will no doubt try to salvage some pride and register their first win. This week has seen the Pumas snubbed out of an official photo shoot, and then to add insult to injury some of the players went and shot themselves in the foot by breaking Covid protocols. In short this is a tournament that Argentina will most likely seek to forget in a hurry and instead focus on preparations for a challenging European tour.
For Australia though the party is just getting started. They are favourites to get their fourth consecutive victory in this tournament on Saturday, and with good reason. The side that looked so out of its depth against New Zealand this year, has fine tuned the systems and plans that worked so well in the summer series against France, and now Australia are looking very much like potential World Cup contenders if they can stay on this trajectory. The big litmus Test will be how they perform on the road, traditionally an Achilles Heel for them in recent years, but right now all the indications are pointing to a Wallaby machine in rather rude health and clearly enjoying themselves.
Where has it all gone so wrong?
It certainly must be a lonely year at the top for Pumas Coach Mario Ledesma. Contrast his rather glum face these days with the euphoria last year as his charges claimed their first ever win over the All Blacks. It’s hard to fathom why things have gone so awry this year. They have the talent and players, but somehow none of it is clicking right now. There have been some impressive individual performances and at times their defense as a unit has been heroic, but on attack they look to be at sixes and sevens and their discipline is shaky at best.
There is no denying that perhaps more than any other international team, Argentina have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. First there was the year long isolation post the World Cup, and then for many of the senior players a year on the road spent bouncing from one Covid bubble to the next. Time with family and friends has been a luxury and a life on the road has had to supplant the comforts of home for over a year now. In short, are they just tired of the circus?
We sincerely hope not, as International Rugby is a poorer playing field without a competitive Pumas side. Their forthcoming tour to Europe next month, will be a challenging affair as they take on France and Ireland. With the prospect of very little if any time at home between the end of the Rugby Championship and the start of the November Tests, your heart has to go out to players and staff as a seemingly interminable life out of a suitcase continues to hang over them. That being said, never count them out. There has been no shortage of passion and emotion and the pride in the jersey is as strong as ever. This may be the toughest year the Pumas will face in this World Cup cycle, but we’re confident they’ll be back when it matters most.
The law of diminishing returns
Since taking over from Brandon Paenga-Amosa at Hooker, Folau Faingaa has seen a dip in his accuracy come lineout time and last weekend against Argentina got the alarm bells ringing. Australia had a poor day at the office last weekend in this department and only had a 77% success rate come lineout time which, had the Argentinians been able to take their chances, could have cost them dearly. Faingaa’s initial work looked promising but for reasons best known to himself and Wallaby Coach Dave Rennie it definitely looks to be the one weak link in an otherwise rather shiny suit of Wallaby armor. Argentina will know this and with individuals like Tomas Lavanini and Guido Petti all looking to cause havoc come lineout time and exploit such weaknesses, Australia will be really hoping that Faingaa has been getting some serious dart throwing practice in this week.
The return of a genuine Wallaby danger man
After a long stint in Japan which he may have thought had put an end to his Wallaby career forever, impressive back rower Sean McMahon makes a return to international duty for Australia. We were convinced he was the next big thing in the land down under and were rather surprised to see him disappear completely off the radar four years ago. A big bruising ball carrier who excels in the physical battles and has a handy turn of pace to go with it, he is exactly the kind of player that would fit into Australia’s expansive but powerful new game plan. While his comeback sees him starting on the bench for this match, we have a strong hunch we’ll be seeing him sooner rather than later as the match unfolds. Quade Cooper’s fairytale return to Australian rugby has caught all the media headlines so far, but this is one fascinating sub plot in the Wallabies rebirth you won’t want to miss.
The whizz kid is back
It’s definitely been a year of comebacks for Australian players left out in the wilderness. Quade Cooper, Sean McMahon and now James O’Connor who finds himself on the bench for Saturday’s final Rugby Championship match against Argentina. He made an impressive return to form with the Queensland Reds, and although they didn’t exactly shine against their Kiwi opponents in Super Rugby, O’Connor’s natural talents at fly half were readily apparent. He definitely needs to cut his teeth again at the International level, and Saturday’s fixture is a golden opportunity to do so. With Quade Cooper on song, Noah Lolesio a work in progress and now James O’Connor warming up, Australia’s game management could be the complete package come their November tour.
Argentina desperately need a bit of Moroni magic on Saturday!
Reliable and solid are the two words that come to mind when speaking of Pumas winger Matias Moroni. He will be a superb test of new Wallaby sensation Andrew Kellaway’s defensive abilities. If Moroni can feed off some of the breaks and space that Pumas novice fly half Santiago Carreras found last Saturday, then the Wallabies could find themselves scrambling in defense. Moroni combines the power and pace that is synomyous with the Argentinian game, but which sadly has so far failed to express itself on the pitch this year. His colleague out wide Emiliano Boffelli brings many of the same qualities combined with a lethal boot. We’d argue that the contest between these two and Australia’s Jordan Petaia and Andrew Kellaway could be one of the most entertaining of the afternoon, provided the South American duo get the ball they need.
It’s hard to predict an Argentine renaissance on Saturday, as they just haven’t shown much evidence of it so far. Last Saturday’s game against Australia was probably the best of their campaign despite the loss. Nevertheless, it’s the end of one hard road and the start of another for Argentina. Whether or not it will be enough motivation to lay down a statement of intent for what is to come remains to be seen. For their sake we hope so, as this is a side that should be doing better than their current form would have us believe.
Australia meanwhile, are unlikely to get too carried away till the final whistle. The Pumas are always a challenge no matter what the form books say, and one that will leave the Wallabies nursing more than just a few bruises and bumps on Sunday. However, despite the pride, passion and legendary physicality that the Pumas will bring to the pitch on Saturday, it’s hard to see them getting past this shiny and rather skillful Wallaby outfit that is brimming with confidence and enthusiasm for the task at hand!