Powerful Pumas needs to focus on finish at Rugby World Cup

By JEROME PUGMIRE 12 September 2019, 12:00AM

While Argentina has strength in depth and a powerful pack, it clearly must finish better to reach a first Rugby World Cup final.

The two-time semifinalist enters the tournament hardened and match-focused by tough recent encounters, but also frustrated by near misses, at the recent Rugby Championship.

The impression remains that while Argentina can give any team in the world a hard time — physically and tactically — but Los Pumas have fallen short of being genuine title contenders so far.

It could be called a "nearly" team.

If only chances had been taken at this season's Rugby Championship, for example. Argentina was in good position to secure a first-ever win over New Zealand and could have beaten Australia away. Instead, those games resulted in narrow defeats. Argentina camped for most of the second half in New Zealand's half of the pitch in Buenos Aires in July, but flowing moves ended with agonizing ball spills near the line in a 20-16 loss.

Then, a week after being crushed by South Africa 46-13 at home on Aug. 10, coach Mario Ledesma's Pumas were within touching distance of a first win away in South Africa since 2015 — holding the Springboks 18-18 with minutes to go — before having a try disallowed and conceding late penalties to lose 24-18.

Those matches highlighted the widespread quality emerging in Argentine club rugby, considering there were different try scorers in each game and four different penalty takers. But in three of the four matches, it was equally evident how wasteful the Argentine attack can be.

For all the efficiency running through the side, led by the ever-assured Nicolás Sánchez at flyhalf, a ruthless edge is lacking.

Emiliano Boffelli is one player hoping to change that, and can be a catalyst in attack from fullback as a fluid runner with good hands. He also has a strong kicking game from distance as he showed with a penalty from halfway against the All Blacks.

The 24-year-old Boffelli is one of many in Argentina's squad who play their club rugby for the Jaguares in the international Super Rugby competition. In fact, Sánchez is one of the rare overseas players in the squad.

How polished Argentina's attacking game will be is uncertain, but there are guarantees in the pack. Imposing captain Pablo Matera leads a powerful backrow and the flanker has good hands as well as a great offload. Hooker Agustín Creevy brings a mixture of savvy and steel while lock Guido Petti is reassuring on lineouts.

They will get strong leadership from coach Ledesma, a former hooker who played in three World Cups and helped Argentina beat France in Paris to finish third in 2007.

He replaced Daniel Hourcade, who quit in June of last year after a chastening 44-15 home loss to Scotland capped a miserable run of two wins in 18 games.

Ledesma has already made bold calls by leaving out wingers Juan Imhoff — a clinical finisher with three tries at the 2015 World Cup and tallying 21 in 34 games — and Santiago Cordero — who starred for Exeter Chiefs in England's Premiership and was one of the five nominees for Player of the Year.

Another strong decision by Ledesma was in overlooking France-based loose forward Facundo Isa and selecting Rodrigo Bruno — who also plays for the Jaguares.

"I wanted to give priority to those playing at home over those based abroad. Contrary to what sections of the media thought, Facundo was not a certain choice," Ledesma said. "From day one, we said we would give priority to the players based in Argentina. That was our selection criteria and it was very clear for everybody."

Ledesma is assisted by ex-teammate Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, a former standout at blindside flanker for club and country now coaching Argentina's forwards.

They will both be fired up to face France in their opening Pool C game at Tokyo Stadium on Sept. 21.

Ledesma played 10 years of club rugby in France with Narbonne, Castres and Clermont, while Lobbe's successful career in France with Toulon saw him win three European Cups and the Top 14 league.

A loss to France must be avoided otherwise Argentina's run of test defeats will reach 10, since a victory away in Australia in last year's Rugby Championship.

Following the opener against France, Argentina has pool games against Tonga, 2003 champion England, and the United States.


More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

By JEROME PUGMIRE 12 September 2019, 12:00AM
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