Johannesburg - The Pumas are back in the city where they have experienced their only official success against South Africa but they may not have the advantage they had when they were here for that Rugby Championship clash three years ago.
In the build-up to what was to be the last Championship match before the 2015 World Cup in England (there was a return match in Buenos Aires a week later but it was not a competition game), no-one talked about Argentina, acording to supersport.com website.
All the focus in Durban was on the Boks and their World Cup build-up - not only from media and fans, but from within the Bok camp itself.
When the then coach Heyneke Meyer was encountered undertaking his morning run along the Umhlanga Rocks promenade and he stopped for a chat on the eve of the game, he admitted that he was belatedly wondering if he had pushed his players too hard in training in the week. He predicted a flat performance due to the focus being on the World Cup.
What he didn’t expect though was to be defeated by an Argentina team he clearly did not rate. And no-one in the squad would have anticipated how strongly the Pumas came at them early in the game, opening up a big lead before going on to record a win that was so comfortable it was almost impossible to believe it was achieved on South African soil.
That first official win for Argentina against the Boks (the South American Jaguars team that beat the Boks in Bloemfontein in 1982 was Argentina in all but name) provided the platform for the Pumas to excel at the World Cup. They ended fourth at rugby’s global showpiece event and hammered some big teams, including Ireland, along the way. Since then they have followed up that first victory with another on Argentina soil in 2016.
Roll the clock forward to 2018 and the build-up to Saturday’s first Rugby Championship clash at Johnson King’s Park and there are some similarities between now and 2015. When Bok coach Rassie Erasmus sat for his first press conference of the week the bulk of the questions focussed on his selection permutations as he builds his depth for the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
There was hardly any mention of Argentina, at least not initially, and the same was the case at a press conference at the training camp in Stellenbosch last week. Argentina Test matches tend not to be hyped like visits by Australia and particularly New Zealand are, with a greater focus on the hosts and what they might do than on the visitors and any threat they might pose.
To be brutally frank, the Pumas don’t help themselves, or the promotion of the game, either. When they trained at Glenwood High School on Monday a group of South African journalists and a television crew waited to interview Pumas players as per the media schedule that had been sent out. But when it came time for the interviews we were told that the players would only speak Spanish and that no translation would be offered.
If the Championship featured mainly teams from South America or Spain that would be acceptable but the SANZAAR competition features three English speaking nations among the four participants. Surely the Pumas have a duty to promote the game, particularly at this time when there isn’t exactly a flood of would-be ticket buyers swamping rugby stadiums around the world?
We will have to wait until later on Tuesday to hear what the Pumas think about being back in Durban, how they feel they have progressed since the last Championship, what changes we can anticipate because of the change of coach, for a translation or a smattering of English speaking players has been offered for the second press call of the week.
What we do know though is that while the Pumas will probably remain under the radar throughout the build-up week, the Boks are not going to fall into the 2015 trap again. Erasmus is wary of what the change of coach might mean to the visitors, plus he knows that competition in Super Rugby has bread a familiarity with South African conditions and players that might embolden the visitors.
“If we put ourselves in their change-room there is a lot that they will feel works for them,” said Erasmus.
“You guys (the media) have sat in many press conferences where a change of coach and a new beginning has been discussed, and it is the same with them now. They have a coach that they are used to (because he coached them as the Jaguares in Super Rugby), they won seven matches on the trot under him, including all four matches they played in Australasia.
“They have also beaten all our franchises in Super Rugby so they don’t have any psychological problem with that. They should be more than happy to be sitting with the underdog tag for this game.”
Erasmus has a lot of respect for the new coach, Mario Laudesma, who he says will make changes to the Pumas approach and to their tactical efficiency.
“Look, we have always known that the Pumas have the grunt, but their coach would have brought lots of technical and tactical knowledge from Australia and he would have brought an extra edge to their game. From the coaching side we in the Bok camp know this and we are preparing for it. We have a lot of respect for what they are capable of and we are expecting a real test match on Saturday.”
Well though they played in Durban in August 2015, there was definitely an element of complacency in the Bok defeat. If Erasmus is to be believed, the Pumas won’t have shock factor as an advantage this time.