More than 13 months after they last took to the field in the win against USA at Rugby World Cup 2019, Los Pumas will play against New Zealand at Sydney’s Bankwest Stadium, in the second round of the revamped Tri Nations.
Playing the All Blacks after such a long COVID-19 induced hiatus will be huge for Mario Ledesma’s team, a squad that has been away from home for a couple of months now.
In fact, playing against New Zealand and Australia, who have both benefited from local Super Rugby competitions and have already played four intense test matches against each other, means Argentina faces an ominous task.
The road to this weekend’s match has been a long one for an Argentine team hard hit by coronavirus, with at least 15 players and a handful of coaches, including Ledesma himself, having tested positive this year. Yet the huge setbacks this caused have not deterred the side in achieving their goal of playing international rugby in 2020.
Given that the epidemiological situation at home made it hard to contain the spread of the virus, and the successful control of it in Uruguay, the squad first moved to Montevideo, where they began preparing for the tournament in a sanitary bubble.
After a month, the squad moved to a hotel in Western Sydney, where a second, very strict quarantine was enforced. They finally came through that and moved to Manly’s waterfront, where life was back to some semblance of normality.
13 Europe-based players, including captain Pablo Matera, arrived at a later date and had to undergo the same routine as their team-mates. Only 10 weeks ago did the full squad come together.
“It was challenging but we are working towards ensuring that the team is ready,” said former Puma captain and coach Marcelo Loffreda, who was welcomed back into international rugby as team manager.
“I met with Mario and (assistant coach) Nicolás (Fernández Miranda) a few months ago and they invited me to come and join them. It was an honour.”
Loffreda’s multiple tasks include passing on the importance of being a Puma and representing the country to the squad’s younger players.
TRI NATIONS MATCH 3: NZ v ARG— Super Rugby/Tri Nations (@SuperRugby) November 11, 2020
Los Pumas train at Leichhardt Oval in Sydney ahead of Saturday's match against All Blacks at Bankwest Stadium. Teams announced later today.#trinations2020 pic.twitter.com/DvOetdeQYm
He is not the only addition to Ledesma’s staff. In Sydney, the team was joined by Michael Cheika, his former boss. Both had first worked together in France in 2011, Ledesma was then brought to New South Wales and the Wallabies under the stewardship of Cheika.
“His inclusion has been very good for me and the team,” said Ledesma of his ‘Aussie’ friend. “We have a group of very young players and Michael’s experience is huge. He is very motivated, helping out in many aspects. Personally, I love working with him.”
Most of the squad have come through the U20 pathway at some stage, and many recent age-grade internationals are in Australia waiting to take on New Zealand and Australia.
Players such as 2018 Youth Olympic gold medal winners Luciano Cinti, 20, and Juan Martín González, who just turned 20 this week, number eight Joaquín Oviedo, 19, and centre Santiago Chocobares, 21, are the squad’s new blood who are learning their trade and waiting for their first caps.
Chocobares, who had a brief World Rugby U20 Championship in Argentina due to injury, will start his first test against the All Blacks, replacing Duendes club-mate Jerónimo de la Fuente, who is carrying an injury.
Duendes Rugby Club in Rosario will provide the squad with another player in the form of Juan Imhoff. The Paris-based winger has not played for Argentina since the semi-final in Rugby World Cup 2015, his return is much anticipated.
Having had only two friendly matches against an Australian XV – the first without those based in Europe – Argentina’s task against the All Blacks and the Wallabies is huge. Yet given the current scenario, it is a much-welcomed relief to be competing at test level again.
France the focus
As much as the focus will be on the Tri Nations, Los Pumas will be looking ahead to Rugby World Cup 2023.
Having missed the quarter-finals in Japan 2019, they will return to France where they had their best-ever tournament, winning the bronze medal at RWC 2007.
“Of course we are thinking of France 2023,” captain Pablo Matera told the media this week. “It seems far away, but it isn’t. A full year has gone and we use every moment we have to prepare the best way we can.
“Obviously, you think of the World Cup as it is the main goal, but we have a long road ahead. We must keep our feet on the ground, think about what lies ahead and try to get out the most out of each opportunity.”