JOHANNESBURG – New Zealand are still my favourites to win the World Cup later this year, but if there’s one team all the competing nations need to keep an eye on it is Argentina.
Los Pumas will not be widely viewed as a team filling a place among the leading contenders, but if things go their way, they could easily end up in the semi-finals and then anything can happen. And if you think I’m mad for suggesting they will be a “dark horse,” consider the following.
Experienced coach Mario Ledesma will basically push a Super Rugby Jaguares team into action throughout the tournament and Argentina will be more settled and familiar with one another than any other team - and by a country mile.
Whether you agree with the fact the Jaguares (basically the Pumas by another name) play in Super Rugby is irrelevant at this stage, the facts are that the Argentina side will arrive in Japan later this year a well-oiled machine, having played together since 2016, in Super Rugby and in Tests.
Former Wallaby Phil Kearns said at the weekend, following the Jaguares’ win over the Waratahs in Sydney, the visitors had an unfair advantage because they were so similar to the Argentina national side and wondered whether they should be allowed to play in Super Rugby.
Well, it was decided by Sanzaar a good few years ago that Argentina, as a southern hemisphere nation, needed greater exposure and competition to grow as a rugby nation. No one moaned then, but now that they’ve doing well and beating teams like the Waratahs, Kearns gets upset.
Argentina have made the most of their inclusion in Super Rugby and good on them for that. They were given a chance and they took it. And how!
In 2016, in their first appearance in Super Rugby, they played 15 games and won four. In 2017, they played 15 and won seven. Last year they played 16 and won nine and featured in the quarter-finals.
Most impressive was their mid-competition run of wins, which included back-to-back victories in Australasia against the Rebels, Brumbies, Blues and Chiefs. Then, after a bye weekend, they also beat the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers, in Argentina.
This season, after a bit of a wobbly start, they again found their range and are headed to a quite astonishing SA Conference title win if all goes well for them in the remaining weeks. So far they have won eight of 13 matches, including winning against the Bulls and Sharks in South Africa.
They have also won their last two matches in Australasia - against the Hurricanes and Waratahs, and are currently on a run of six wins from seven games. They have never lost in Australia.
The Jaguares will fancy their chances against the Reds in Brisbane this week and they’ll also be confident of beating the Sharks and Sunwolves in their final two games, both in Argentina. Then it’s into the knockouts.
Whatever happens from here on, the Argentina players will go to the World Cup in a few months’ time not only a confident team, but a side that has tasted victory against some of the best players and teams in the southern hemisphere, and is closer together than any other outfit.
They’re in Pool C in Japan, alongside England, France, USA and Tonga - the so-called group of death - so it won’t be an easy ride but they could well top that group and then give themselves a real shot at glory.@jacq_west