Argentina XV's success in winning the Americas Rugby Championship for the second time in its four-year history was built on the back of hard work that began at the start of the year, according to head coach Ignacio Fernández Lobbe.
Under a sweltering summer sun on 7 January, 37 players began to prepare for the region's marquee tournament, that they last won in its first year in 2016, under the instruction of Lobbe, who had stepped into the main coaching role after two years as an assistant to Hall of Fame inductee Felipe Contepomi.
Having seen the US Eagles lift the trophy in 2017 and 2018, the 65-test veteran decided to make changes in a bid to reverse his team's fortunes. Less player rotation, to bring stability to the squad and enable them to work on a winning game plan, was the order of the day.
"In our first two years with Argentina XV, we worked with many players," explained Fernández Lobbe from Santiago, where his team round off their campaign against Chile this weekend. “We talked about it with the Unión Argentina de Rugby and my proposal was not to rotate so much, to build a team. They accepted and that was crucial.”
With the player development and competitive team goals high on the agenda, while assisting where needed with Super Rugby team Los Jaguares, Fernández Lobbe's winning personality rubbed off on the team.
“We worked on the identity of the team, and the hard toil brought us together. We also wanted players to earn the right to play in our team and for them to know there is a direct connection with Jaguares and Pumas,” he said.
“It is because of all this work that we are the champions.”
Argentina XV got off to a flying start in a bid to end the Eagles' stranglehold on the competition, winning their first two games, both at home: 54-3 against Brazil and 45-15 versus the USA.
“Our start was encouraging. Brazil are a team that is clearly growing with the good work of coach Rodolfo Ambrosio.
“I don't read too much into the final score against the USA. The fact that we beat a Rugby World Cup team is more important. It was a clear win regardless of them getting a red card.”
After a week off, the team dropped off from their usual high standard in beating Uruguay 35-10 in Buenos Aires but were back to their efficient best against Canada in Langford for a 39-23 win. In each of these four games, the Lautaro Bavaro-captained side claimed a try bonus point, resulting in them capturing the title one round early.
Now Fernández Lobbe wants to see his team sign off in style in Santiago. “I want 80 minutes of good rugby, similar to our performances in the first two rounds; the players deserve this. It would be sad not to be able to showcase all the effort put into this campaign since 7 January.”
The prestige and standard of the Americas Rugby Championship has grown exponentially, a fact acknowledged by Fernández Lobbe. “Every team is stronger, with better players. It gets harder every year and planning is crucial when you prepare for the Championship.”
The next step
Fernández Lobbe believes that in the future many of his players are capable of stepping up to Super Rugby team Los Jaguares. They would follow the path of players such as Rodrigo Bruni, Bautista Delguy, Juan Cruz Mallía and Santiago Medrano who played in the ARC and are now part of Argentina's elite group. Lucas Mensa, Santiago Carreras, Agustín Segura are among those being tipped to go all the way.
As a friend and former team-mate of Los Pumas' head coach Mario Ledesma and of Jaguares head coach Gonzalo Quesada, there is open and frequent communication between the three of them.
“Generally speaking, we work with similar patterns so that players can move from team to team and it is quicker and easier to adapt,” he said, leaving the door open for his players to be promoted to Los Jaguares and eventually Los Pumas.
Once the fourth edition of the Americas Rugby Championship concludes on Saturday, Argentina XV will play the Sudamérica Rugby Six Nations in May, the World Rugby Nations Cup in Montevideo, Uruguay, in June and then, possibly, take part in South Africa's Currie Cup.
The season is only just starting but already much has been achieved.
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