Sept 12 (Reuters) - Argentina go to the World Cup on the back of nine consecutive test defeats which have dropped them down to 11th in the world rankings, not the best of omens for a team in the toughest pool that includes England and France.
Yet the Pumas are optimistic that their steady progress since joining SANZAAR seven years ago and playing the three southern hemisphere giants — New Zealand, Australia and South Africa — on a regular basis can help them to cause an upset and secure a place in a fourth successive quarter-final.
Coach Mario Ledesma has said from the day of the World Cup draw that he will put everything Argentina have into their opening Pool C match on Sept. 21 against France, a team they have beaten 10 times in their 16 meetings this century.
“Our objective is to pass the first phase. From there other objectives will appear,” Ledesma told the Argentine daily Clarin.
He made his final squad choices, with some surprises, on the basis of the final warmup on Aug. 17 in Pretoria against South Africa, a 24-18 loss with a markedly better performance than the 46-13 defeat in Salta the previous week with which the Springboks sealed the Rugby Championship title.
Argentina had gone into the Rugby Championship on a wave of euphoria after virtually the same squad reached the Super Rugby final with the Jaguares, holding the belief they could achieve a first ever win over New Zealand in their opening match at home on July 20.
They were close, going down 20-16, and also lost narrowly to Australia away, but the thumping loss to South Africa underlined the difficulties of carrying Super Rugby form onto the international stage, added to the exhaustion of a season that began in February.
Ledesma was allowed by the Argentine union (UAR) to break the rule on not calling up exiles by picking players who might be better than their Jaguares counterparts — such as flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez, wing Santiago Cordero, who had a brilliant season for Exeter, and Toulon number eight Facundo Isa, who was thought to be an obvious inclusion as a fine ball carrier.
Winger Juan Imhoff, who had a brilliant 2015 World Cup but had committed his club future to Racing 92 when the Jaguares were created in 2016, was overlooked altogether.
In fact, Ledesma said it had turned out to be harder than expected to draft those European-based players with World Cup experience into his Rugby Championship side and discarded Isa and Cordero, who had shone in the Pumas team that reached the 2015 semi-finals in England.
So tighthead prop Juan Figallo of Saracens, a veteran of two World Cups, is the only Europe-based player among 17 forwards in the squad.
However, the flyhalf position is covered by two exiles: Sanchez, who left the Jaguares for Stade Francais only last year, and Benjamin Urdapilleta of Castres, who had to wait six years for a new Pumas call-up.
How a scrum with seven Jaguares and Figallo fare will probably be the key against the French as Ledesma looks to make the Pumas pack as feared as it once was, having watched its decline from afar while helping Australia improve theirs under Michael Cheika for two years before returning home in 2018.
Defeat by the French will make the clash with England on Oct. 5 even more important, with the Pumas having suffered four successive defeats against Eddie Jones’s side. (Reporting by Rex Gowar; Editing by Ken Ferris)