The Jaguares' Guido Petti in action during a Super Rugby match between Jaguares and Sunwolves. Photo: EPA/Matias G Napoli Escalero

BUENOS AIRES – As Argentina's Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares prepare to take on the Chiefs in the competition's quarter-finals in Buenos Aires on Friday, their success this season has raised hopes the Pumas will launch a serious challenge at the World Cup in Japan.

The Jaguares reached the knock-out rounds as second seeds behind reigning champions and record nine-time winners Crusaders, boasting a side that is almost identical to Argentina's national team.

“It's the first time in the history of rugby that a professional (national) team trains every day, all year long,” said former Pumas hooker Andres Courreges. “Since the Pumas are the Jaguares squad plus (Nicolas) Sanchez, (Facundo) Isa... I can't wait to see them at the World Cup.”

The pair feature for clubs in the French Top 14 as fly-half Sanchez plays for Stade Francais and back-rower Isa has a contract with Toulon.

But it is exactly that advantage that has proved a bone of contention for some when it comes to Super Rugby.

Former Australia international Phil Kearns, now a commentator for Fox Sports TV, claimed last month Argentina had “hoodwinked” southern hemisphere governing body SANZAAR into allowing them to play together all year round.

“This is a provincial competition. Have a provincial team in it - that's what it's about. It's not about having national teams being in it,” he said.

That brought a rebuke from Jaguares head coach Gonzalo Quesada.

“The idea was to get an Argentinian team to be better. We are improving year by year. We are really thankful to be in Super Rugby,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

'Incredible tempo'

Courreges sees the benefits to the Jaguares team currently enjoying by far their best campaign to date.

From a record of four wins and 11 defeats in their inaugural Super Rugby season in 2016, they have improved year on year, reaching the quarter-finals for the first time last season and topping their conference this time around with 11 wins and just five defeats.

“Over the last four years it's taken shape. They play with an incredible tempo, they attack from all sides, you think they never get tired,” said Courreges.

Jaguares lock Marcos Kremer, 21, says “the last four years of work is bearing fruit.”

“It's good for us to be together, we know each other well.” 

But while the Jaguares' progress has been evident, the same cannot be said for the Pumas.

Argentina have won just eight of 37 internationals since finishing fourth at the 2015 World Cup -- and two of those victories came against second tier Georgia and Japan.

In each of the last three years they've finished bottom of the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship.

Since the last World Cup, Argentina, currently ranked 10th in the world, have beaten Italy and South Africa twice each, and Australia and France once each.

But they've lost every time they've faced the current top four: world champions New Zealand, Wales, Ireland, and England, who will be in their World Cup group, as well as Scotland in Japan.

While playing together all year round can be an advantage in terms of developing synergy and understanding, it can have its down sides too.

“Playing together all year can be a bonus, but at the same time, you get studied a lot, so I don't know exactly what advantage that can give us,” said Pumas and Jaguares full-back Emiliano Boffelli.

Either way, the Jaguares have been a breath of fresh air for Super Rugby this year and stand a great chance of beating the Chiefs on Friday.

Since Super Rugby began in 1996, 16 of the 23 editions have been won by New Zealand franchises -- a Jaguares victory would bring some variety if nothing else.

That would clearly give the Pumas a World Cup confidence boost but even if were it to happen, Argentina must still play three Rugby Championship matches before heading to Japan.

And those, rather more than the Jaguares' performances in Super Rugby, will give a far greater indication of how regular Super Rugby competition is aiding the national team's bid to win a first ever major international title.

Agence France-Presse (AFP)