With four bronze medal winners from Tokyo 2020 in the travelling squad, Argentina enters a full Rugby Championship season on Saturday in Port Elizabeth against a hyped-up Springbok side fresh from a series win over the British and Irish Lions.

Speedster Marcos Moneta, centre or wing Lucio Cinti, full-back Ignacio Mendy and utility back Santiago Mare had a few days at home after returning from a successful Olympic Games campaign in which Los Pumas 7s took third place, claiming a crucial win against South Africa in the quarter-finals, and these four players playing key roles. Cinti travelled to Australia for last year’s Rugby Championship, not making it further than a place on the bench for one game. The other three will get their first taste of Pumas rugby in the toughest of environments.

Huge challenges await

Los Pumas face huge challenges ahead of the 11th season of the Rugby Championship, with its squad scattered around – mostly in Europe – and Mario Ledesma only managing to get most of his players together on Monday in Port Elizabeth, the venue for the two tests against the Springboks. From there, they will travel to Auckland and Sydney.

Full-back Emiliano Boffelli and loose-head prop Facundo Gigena were unable to travel due to COVID-19 related issues and will join the team at a later date, and first-choice scrum-half Tomás Cubelli was injured with his new club in France, Biarritz, and was operated on only a few days ago.

Unlike 2020, when Argentina had its most successful Rugby Championship – the Springboks did not compete – they have gone straight into competition mode.

Last year, Ledesma took his team to Sydney almost two months ahead of a competition that saw them record two draws against the Wallabies and the first-ever win against the All Blacks, to finish in second position.

Springboks back in the fold

The much-welcomed return of the Springboks to the Southern Hemisphere’s premier competition will test a Pumas side that struggled to beat Romania in Bucharest and drew with and beat Wales in the summer series, but have since not come together until this week.

In a short space of time, the team will need to find its feet, renew its confidence in a style that the coaching staff is trying to install, adapt to the new rules and face three of the world’s best teams, including the current World Champions.

“We are working very hard ahead of the game against the Springboks,” said winger Bautista Delguy, pictured in the lead image attacking against Australia in 2020.

“It is great being back in the team ahead of a new Rugby Championship and after a positive summer window. We want to prove ourselves.”

Grey matter

Ledesma has grown his coaching staff and has the Fernández Miranda brothers, Nicolás and Juan de la Cruz, the Fernández Lobbes, Juan Martín and Ignacio, and U20s head coach José Pellicena at his disposal. With them, they are aiming for Rugby World Cup 2023, and for that they are also after a new game plan.

“Since we first got together in Romania, we started to get to know more of it [the new game plan]. Probably, we didn’t play our best rugby on tour, but we did beat a very tough Welsh side. We want to play better every time and it will be important to start well against the Springboks.”

As was the case in July, getting the team together is difficult, with players arriving from different countries, tournaments and schedules.

As Delguy adds, “it is hard to get started even if we know each other well. It is a question of time.”

Searching for a third win

Argentina has only won against the Springboks at home once, with only two wins and a draw dating back to the first official test between both nations in 1993.

At Durban’s Kings Park in 2015, Los Pumas beat the Springboks 37-25, and the following year in Salta, Argentina, a last-minute penalty gave the home side the win.

The strong feeling of friendship between both nations, dating back to the first-ever international tour to the country in 1965, where the name Los Pumas was first used, is huge.

It won’t be noticeable at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, however, as both teams will try to impose themselves in what promises to be an epic battle of the forwards.

The last time they played, in Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld, required every ounce of the Springboks efforts to win 24-18.

Since then, the Springboks won Rugby World Cup 2019 and, relatively few matches later, beat the Lions this year.

The Springboks have made 10 changes to the team that took the Lions series on Saturday, while Los Pumas have, understandably, not included any of the Olympians. They will have to reconnect with 15s rugby and learn the high demands of the test level before being in a position to win a first cap.

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