To most, the Pumas were the surprise package of the last world cup, beating the hosts France [twice] and a highly-touted Ireland along the way to a third-place finish. They were magnificent in that tournament, playing a pretty limited but extremely physical brand of rugby that was occasionally lit up by some fantastic performances from their talented backs.
People complain that the Pumas started a sort of ‘puke-rugby’ style, but that’s unfair: it was simply playing to suit how the laws had evolved, and England, France and South Africa weren’t doing it much differently themselves.
It also sort of ignores that the Pumas had a cracking midfield and a great fullback that allowed them to play whatever way they wanted – Pichot, Hernandez, Contepomi and Corleto were all world-class players. When you consider the strength that they had through the forwards, the realisation dawns that they didn’t somehow ‘trick’ the game or do a Greece 2004 on it: they just played to their potential as regards talent, and were a well-coached, well-focused team with pride in their country, who harnessed a natural aggression with the experience of their team leaders and a wily coach.
I’m almost certain that they won’t be able to pull a similar set of performances out of the bag this time, although they will give every opponent they encounter a right going-over … that’s just how they play the game. Their starting pack of Roncero, Ledesma, Scelzo, Albacete, Carizza, Farias Cabello, Leguizamon and Fernandez Lobbe is entirely French-based, talented, big and mean, but the front row is getting on in a very big way.
Neither Mario Ledesma  nor Martin Scelzo  are the players they were – this will be the fourth world cup for both of them, and while both of them made contributions to Clermont last season, neither of them was the dominant player he has been in the past. Ledesma has been one of the truly great hookers of the professional era, but he’s nearing forty years old and didn’t make a single European start for ASM; Scelzo only made two. Nor were they racking up the minutes for Clermont in the Top 14 – Ti’i Paulo played more often than Ledesma at hooker and Georgian monster Zirikashvilli more than Scelzo at tighthead.
Agustin Creevy wasn’t Montpellier’s first choice hooker [he was behind Ladhuie in terms of gametime] and, with only two hookers in the squad, this is now something of a weak position for Argentina.
Ayerza is a fantastic prop and, at 28 years old, changes the whole age-profile of that front row – he’s six years younger than the youngest starter, and while they might lose some personality on the park, the Leicester prop is a genuinely excellent player. Juan Figallo was first choice for French runners-up Montpellier at loosehead, got plenty of gametime and started in the final, so he’s another in the production line of Argentine props.
Rodrgio Roncero shows no sign of slowing down, even at the age of 34. He racked up more minutes at loosehead for troubled Stade Francais than any other prop in France did for their club in the Top 14, and did a decent job of holding the team together on the pitch when things were falling apart off it. He’s all personality on the pitch as well – shrugs and chat and niggle.
Patricio Albacete had a big season for French champions Toulouse, and signed up for another four years of hard slog in the engine room in January of this year. He’s a genuinely first-class second row, and handily outplayed the Irish pair of Donncha O’Callaghan and Mick O’Driscoll when they met in November 2010. It’s very difficult to tell with Argentine players just where they stand in terms of international rugby apart from world cup years, so I guess we’ll find out if Albacete is up there with David Horwill, Brad Carnegie Thorn, Bakkies Botha and Nathan Hines as the best No4s in the world: I think he is.
Carizza is not a Biarritz regular [they have Gigantic Thion and Scary-Beard Lund in their second-row] and Mariano Galarza made no impact at all in half a season at Leinster. I know that Argentines typically play better for the Pumas than they do for their clubs, but they’ll both have to leave it out on the pitch every time they play; they’re not good enough to coast.
Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe racked up 1520 minutes for Toulon in 2010-11 and a fair few outings for the Barbarians: a world-class back-row forward by anybody’s standards.
Leguizamon is far more hot-and-cold … sometimes he looks like the best player on the pitch, other times you don’t even notice that he’s out there. His discipline is very, very iffy as well – spends a lot of time in the bin, even for an Argentinian backrow forward! Farias Cabello on the blindside is a relatively old chappie who plays his rugby in Argentina for Tucuman, which would suggest that he’s not at the same level as his two compadres in the backrow. Still, he’s a big unit at 193cm [6’4”] and 109kg [17st2lbs], and he’s doubtless a steak-fed monster in the mould of our old friends Gonzalo Elias Longo and Lucas Ostiglia, forwards who seemed to grow in stature when they shrugged on the sky-blue and white hoops.
Racing Metro’s Alvaro Galindo has had to withdraw from the squad, following a leg injury sustained playing in the first match of the Top 14 against Lyon. He is replaced by Wasps-bound Genaro Fessia. Fessia is no mug, but it’s difficult not to sympathise with Galindo – playing for Racing two weeks before the world cup wasn’t his decision, and doubtless something he was pushed into by his coaches. You can understand how the Pumas have a special bond when they get together at international level – almost all of them live and work outside their country, and sometimes they get pushed around a bit if they’re not big names.
It’s really in the halfbacks where the Pumas squad falls short of its august RWC07 predecessor: no Agustin Pichot and no Juan Martín Hernandez. They were two of the brightest stars four years ago, and while Pichot’s retirement was always going to happen, Hernandez has been dreadfully unlucky with injury. He was the best outhalf in the last tournament, and one of the very best players in the world – pacy, incredibly powerful for his size, brave in defence and equipped with an incredibly varied kicking game, one of the most rounded I think I’ve ever seen. A huge loss both to Argentina and to neutrals.
Felipe Contepomi moves one in from inside centre to out-half. He’s got a ton of experience in the No10 jersey [Maradona used to wear No10, so no pressure Felipe] and all the skills for the position, but even at 34 he’s still a hot-head. Without the calming influence and captaincy of Pichot and the incredible skillset of Hernandez inside him, there’s every danger he’s going to think that he has to do it all himself. You can see the bronca rising in Felipe when things aren’t going well, and it tends to poison rather than fuel him.
At scrum-half, Nico Vergallo plays for Toulouse, and they don’t keep any dummies on the books there. He’s no Pichot though.
Santiago Fernandez made Midi Olympique’s ‘Équipe Type du Top 14’ on the back of 1773mins for Montpellier in the centre this year, the most gametime any centre [bar Jabba] played in the league. Marcelo Bosch wasn’t too far behind him for Biarritz, logging 1422mins in the yearbook, and while Gonzalo Tiesi didn’t set the world alight for Stade last season, he’s a more known quantity having played a couple of years worth of rugby for Harlequins and London Irish in the English Premiership.
Fernandez and Bosch are first choice centres for front-rank French clubs, and both have played outhalf earlier in their careers, so they’re proper footballing midfielders. How effective they’ll be in defense against the big bosh-merchants they’ll face in Tuilagi, Tindall, Hape [England] and Morrison [Scotland] is a bit of an unknown though.
The ferocious little Horacio Agulla of Leicester is definitely more a bustler than a glider, but he’s a whole-hearted and physical winger well capable of coming off the flanks and mixing it up in midfield. Amorosino is more of a back-three type of player than an out-and-out winger; he played a limited amount of rugby in Leicester alongside his compatriot over the last couple of seasons [09/10 and 10/11] and apparently has signed on for Montpellier this year.
Martín Rodríguez Gurruchaga has enormous boots to fill – at fullback for Stade, he has the spectre of Hernandez’s brilliant performances looming over him, and at international level, Nacho Corleto had three great world cups in the No15 jersey for the Pumas. People sometimes forget just how good Corleto was, but he had it all – ferocious pace, great in the air and a big boot.
I’m not sure if Rodriguez Gurruchaga can hit the heights that his predecessors did in this world cup, but outside of Contepomi, I think he’s the most talented of the Pumas backline.
So the Pumas: past their peak, and in a rough, tough group [although to quote Jerry Collins, “If it wasn’t tough, I would have made it tough”]. I can see them beating Scotland in an absolute dogfight, and in fact their group is just going to be a grinder all the way through. Second-place qualifiers behind England this time, but they’d top it with their 2007 variety by a street.
Props: Rodrigo Roncero (Stade Francais), Martin Scelzo (Agen), Marcos Ayerza (Leicester Tigers), Juan Figallo (Montpellier), Maximiliano Bustos (Montpellier)
Hookers: Mario Ledesma (no club), Agustin Creevy (Montpellier),
Second-row: Patricio Albacete (Toulouse), Mariano Galarza (Pampas XV), Manuel Carizza (Biarritz), Tomas Vallejos (Harlequins)
Backrow: Juan Manuel Leguizamon (Lyon), Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe (Toulon), Genaro Fessia (Wasps), Julio Alfredo Farias Cabello (Tucuman RC), Alejandro Campos (Agen), Leonardo Senatore (Gimnasia y Esgrima Rosario),
Scrum-halves: Alfredo Lalanne (London Irish), Nicolas Vergallo (Toulouse)
Out-halves: Felipe Contepomi (Stade Francais), Federico Sanches (Bordeaux Begles)
Centres: Gonzalo Tiesi (Stade Francais), Marcelo Bosch (Biarritz), Santiago Fernandez (Montpellier),
Wings: Horacio Agulla (Leicester Tigers), Gonzalo Camacho (Exeter), Juan Jose Imhoff (Duendes RC Rosario), Agustin Gosio (Club Newman),
Fullbacks: Martín Rodríguez Gurruchaga (Stade Francais), Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino (Montpellier)
* The ‘Do You Have Fire?‘ thing is about how pretty much all Argentinians smoke, and they ask for ‘fire’ rather than ‘a light’ in English. Also, the Pumas have a lot of fire, a lot of bronca.