LA PLATA, ARGENTINA - SEPTEMBER 29: Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, the Argentina captain leads out his team during the Rugby Championship match between Argentina and the New Zealand All Blacks at Estadio Ciudad de La Plata on September 29, 2012 in La Plata, Argentina. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)




Benedict Chanakira wrote this piece for Vodacom Rugby…..



The Jaguares were a bit like Popeye on an empty stomach this year, but the Pumas play like the sailor with a fully belly of the green stuff. When these men slip on the blue-and-white jerseys, their passion for the game is second to none. It brings out their best and, at times, their worst, but there’s no denying that Argentina have evolved into one of the best sides in world rugby.

Los Pumas have been bold in several approaches that have taken them to the next level, including a shake-up in their junior structures, a strong stance on selection and a change in game plan.

Introduction into the Rugby Championship and then Super Rugby were not the catalysts for their rise. In 2008, Argentina’s regional rugby centres began analysing and identifying schoolboy talent. This was a new process for them and one that sped up the development of players to the highest level. The results are evident in the Pumitas (Argentina’s Under-20s) showing off their talent at the 2016 Junior World Championships.

They beat South Africa twice and earned their best Junior Championships finish. The management’s belief, that a change was required from the bottom up, is bearing fruit.

The move to introduce the best juniors into the senior ranks offered such talents experience and an opportunity to earn a contract with the Jaguares, who blooded several young guns, while those players who did not rise quickly through the ranks remained at the “Plan de Alto Rendimento”, a high performance centre for Argentina’s future stars.

Guido Petti, Manuel Montero, the notorious Tomas Lavanini and Pablo Matera are a few examples of how the PladAR system is reaping rewards and adding depth to the Pumas player pool.

The appointment of Daniel Hourcade to coach Argentina was a masterstroke. He took over when the team was in a difficult position and reinvented the Pumas by introducing a younger, hungrier crop of players while easing out the veterans who had done the jersey proud. Of as much importance, Hourcade also tinkered with the game plan.

The former Portugal assistant coach stepped in after Santiago Phelan resigned in the wake of damaging defeats to South Africa and Australia in 2013. With only a few weeks to prepare for the November tour, Hourcade – who had worked with the famous Pampas XV in the Vodacom Cup – began integrating his hopefuls into the senior squad.

The new coach also rolled out a progressive game plan aimed at scoring more tries en route to winning more games. In Nelspruit last week, the Pumas played with flamboyance, panache, skill and exuberance, complemented by a forward pack that has grunt and mobility. No 8 Facundo Isa embodies Argentina’s ability to play in the trenches and break free with some style.

Part of Hourcade’s success comes down to his willingness to select players from across the country. In the past, players had to be based in Buenos Aires to have any chance of being selected, but an improved scouting system has helped Los Pumas to identify players from all areas of Argentina.

Another contributor has been the introduction of a selection policy that rules out any overseas-based players. It’s a bold move that has not always been easy to stick to, with Racing 92’s Juan Imhoff and chief scrummager Marcos Ayerza thus not eligible.

Exciting, abrasive, controversial and somewhat unorthodox, Los Pumas are now a team to be taken seriously and – in conjunction with the talent nurtured by a streamline junior structure, an improving Argentina Sevens team, the Argentina XV and the Jaguares – Pumas fans have reason to be optimistic about the future.

The next bend in the road leads Argentina to their fort in Salta where they will have the opportunity to take another big step forward by clinching their first home win against the Springboks in the history of the rivalry.

Benedict is a sports psychology student, a rugby coach and a freelance rugby writer. Follow him on Twitter: @bchanakira2

FRESH TAKE is an initiative to identify, feature and develop talented rugby writers who are not yet part of the mainstream media.

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