This Saturday the Pumas face a tough test. A test they will almost certainly lose, since they are playing against the mighty All Blacks in New Zealand. And it wouldn’t be a shocker, really. In fact they have lost 13 out of the last 16 test matches. Recently, having lost both home and away to a resilient Springbok team, as well as succumbing twice to an under-strength England during their 2017 tour to Argentina.
Obviously losing to South Africa is no surprise. The pedigree of South African rugby is unquestionable. But it is the way Argentina is losing that is raising eye brows. What has happened to the relentless, devil-may-care Rugby they used to play? A rugby that saw them reach the semi-finals in the 2007 and 2015 World Cups. Ten years ago they won Bronze and only two years ago, Nicolas Sanchez was the tournament’s top scorer with an impressive 97 points.
Those were the days of aggressive Argentine rugby, where tactics went out of the window and the only thing that mattered was attack. Maybe, rival teams have simply adjusted to the local menace, or perhaps there is a major flaw in how this country’s domestic rugby is governed.
Argentina joined the Super Rugby international league in 2015, which spans the Southern Hemisphere, including South Africa, Japan, New Zealand and Australia. In here, it is represented by the porteño team Los Jaguares.
The foundation of Los Jaguares in 2015, who play at the Estadio Jose Amalfitani – a 50,000 capacity stadium here in Buenos Aires – was meant to cement Argentina’s position as a developing Rugby Force.
Perhaps it has done the opposite.
The idea was a simple one from the Argentine Rugby Union (UAR): to create a competitive team based in Argentina, which in turn will allow Argentine talent to grow and a return of great talents based abroad.
In order to achieve this, the UAR decided to restrict the amount of foreign players playing in the league (similar rules exist in football). Secondly, and in a move that was rather controversial, they adopted a policy of blocking foreign-based players from playing for Los Pumas.
The Jaguares’ Nicolas Sanchez.
If you want domestic rugby to grow, which following Argentina’s impressive growth — especially in comparison to countries were Rugby is undeniably more popular: Wales, Ireland, France, Scotland — the decision to hoard all your best players can be a sensible one. It ensures that they practice together both at a national and domestic level, thus improving the chemistry of the team. It also helps from a recruitment point of view as young Argentines can see their favorite stars. A similar ‘unofficial policy’ was adopted by the Italian Football Federation in the 1990s, a decade in which the Italian national team and the Italian domestic leagues were the best in the world. Unsurprisingly, the policy worked.
So why isn’t it working for Argentina?
A “protectionist” policy only works if your domestic league is competitive. If anything, it is hindering Los Pumas.
The difference between Argentine Rugby and Italian football is vast. Football is the largest sport in Italy and Serie A was the best league in the world at the time. Thus the amount of money entering domestic football was huge, not just through ticket revenues, but through merchandise, broadcasting rights and advertising.
Argentine Rugby is simply not that. Argentina needs good young players from abroad to help build Los Jaguares.
We would benefit greatly in terms of experience and facilities that clubs in Oceania and Europe have to offer. It enables them to experience different coaching techniques as well as regular rugby.
Furthermore, a sizable chunk of Argentina’s star players have left for Europe, knowing that such a move will put their international careers on hold.
Juan Imhoff is one example. Imhoff plays in France and has scored 21 tries in 33 tests for Argentina. Patricio Fernandez, whose future was tipped for bright things, has recently signed a contract extension at Clermont thus making him ineligible.
And the list of Argentines abroad is extensive: Facundo Isla, Axel Muller, Benjamin Urdapilleta, Mariano Galazar, Facundo Bosch, Ramiro Herrera and Juan Pablo Socino to name a few. Their absence is clearly being felt. Perhaps it is time they were recalled.