Pumas’ unjust Loftus pressure

Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe
Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe

Cape Town – Are Argentina set to become victims of another Highveld “cricket score” against the Springboks?

It must be deemed an uncomfortable possibility, when you consider that the Pumas will be fielding some new, presumably fairly callow faces for their Castle Rugby Championship 2014 opener at Loftus on Saturday ... and South Africa, if anything, are only getting more accomplished, multi-dimensional and try-hungry in the third year of Heyneke Meyer’s coaching tenure.

Nobody needs reminding that when they played at the reasonably nearby FNB Stadium in last year’s competition, the Pumas were slaughtered 73-13 in a result that remains the worst of their dozen since they entered the picture and forced a name change to the former Tri-Nations in 2012.

It also barely needs stating that outcomes like that one, doing little to suggest the coveted principle of strength versus strength, aren’t great advertisements for the still-novice “fourth element” in the southern hemisphere competition: fortunately they haven’t occurred especially often.

But there also appears to be a mounting lobby suggesting this third season is a key one for the South Americans in ensuring the validity or otherwise of continued participation in the event.

Latest to weigh in with his sixpence on that score is former All Blacks scrumhalf Justin Marshall.

Writing in his column on Monday in the New Zealand Herald, Marshall, generally an astute and unbiased commentator, says: “Argentina need to win a game (in the 2014 Championship) ... I can’t put it more simply or emphasise it enough.

“They’ve drawn once and should have won, but that’s not going to wash any more.

“Their continued involvement in the tournament requires more than a hint of promise; if anything, they were closer to being competitive in their first year.

“Without a quality domestic tournament, there are no easy answers to the Argentina conundrum, but the success of this tournament relies on bums on seats and ratings, and if the Pumas don’t quickly emerge as a competitive force, then they become a liability.”

Marshall and those who back his sentiment are entitled to their view ... but I believe it is a misguided, crazily premature one.

Whoever thought the Pumas, with all their obstacles (at least Marshall did pinpoint one or two) would arrive in the Championship and almost immediately take it by storm?

Frankly, they haven’t fared too badly considering that they were thrown into the ring with the trio of powers most often associated in modern times with the top three positions on the IRB rankings ... and just by way of reminder, that is precisely the case at present, whilst the Pumas lie a particularly distant 12th even behind the likes of Samoa, Fiji and Japan.

Already they have been involved in some desperately close scraps, especially against the Boks and Wallabies.

South African fans must still squirm in discomfort over that fortuitous stalemate in Mendoza in 2012, when the Boks were under the cosh for lengthy periods and required Frans Steyn’s converted, charge-down try to spare blushes in the final quarter.

While it is true that the world champion All Blacks have not yet had a real heart-stopper in their quartet of Championship games against the Pumas, it is worth highlighting the hardly trivial statistic that in two clashes on New Zealand soil (Wellington, then Hamilton) the overwhelmingly fancied hosts have yet to manage a four-try bonus point.

All these are signs of substantial progress -- perhaps even more than might have been reasonably anticipated at the outset of Argentina’s inclusion.

The Pumas are a colourful, sometimes incredibly feisty addition to the otherwise fairly staid rugby landscape south of the equator, and I think you will find that many Test stalwarts from the more fancied nations, including the Boks, find the annual trek to notably different cultural terrain pretty invigorating.

Argentina require a patient, ongoing helping hand from their juggernaut southern hemisphere rivals to aid their broad development in rugby and simultaneously claw back to healthier real estate on the Test rankings.

The more they play them, the wiser they’ll get.

More than enough Championship games thus far have indicated that, even if the floodgates have also opened against them at times.

What earthly good does brutally cutting the Championship rope on the Pumas do?

And why should this mere, third season of involvement be regarded as some sort of watershed for them?

Argentina must not be made to feel under intolerable, life-threatening heat to win matches in this year’s competition ... and yes, I believe I will still be banging that drum if they are beaten by a wide margin at Loftus.

Argentina results in Rugby Championship:

2012 (fourth, four points): SA 27 Argentina 6, Cape Town; Argentina 16 SA 16, Mendoza; NZ 21 Argentina 5, Wellington; Australia 23 Argentina 19, Gold Coast; Argentina 15 NZ 54, La Plata; Argentina 19 Australia 25, Rosario.

2013 (fourth, two points): SA 73 Argentina 13, Johannesburg; Argentina 17 SA 22, Mendoza; NZ 28 Argentina 13, Hamilton; Australia 14 Argentina 13, Perth; Argentina 15 NZ 33, La Plata; Argentina 17 Australia 54, Rosario.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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