Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe
Argentina have yet to win a game in the Rugby Championship, but after naming a full-strength squad for their second season in the competition they will be confident of fixing that statistic against the Southern Hemisphere’s big boys.
In all but one of their six matches last year—the 54-15 home defeat by the All Blacks—the Pumas were competitive. They earned a draw with South Africa on their home debut in the tournament, while a total of only 10 points separated the sides in their two losses to Australia.
The Pumas had waited a long time for their invitation to join what used to be the Tri-Nations, and they showed that they belonged with a number of typically obdurate performances.
Argentina’s challenge this year is to make further progress and prove that their efforts and relative success last year was not achieved on passion alone. Second-season syndrome needs to be avoided, and it appears they are doing everything in their power to guarantee the trend is upwards.
As well as securing the services of their leading European-based players, the Pumas have contracted World Cup-winning New Zealand coach Graham Henry on a consultancy basis.
Henry has been advising coach Santiago Phelan during the Pumas training camp at The High Performance Centre in Florida and will be retained for the duration of the tournament.
According to Reuters, veteran centre Felipe Contepomi certainly feels the Pumas' preparation has gone well.
This is a good squad that has prepared hard. We are where we want to be. There are things to improve but we are in a strong way.
Starting with their opening clash against South Africa in Johannesburg on August 17, the Pumas will want to banish memories of two heavy summer defeats against England.
Those games featured Argentina’s second-string squad as Phelan chose to rest his leading players, and only four have been retained for the upcoming tournament.
With the likes of Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Patricio Albacete, Juan Manuel Leguizamon and Marcos Ayerza all fit and available, the Pumas will again provide formidable opposition up front.
Expect them to employ their famous "bajada" technique as they look to put maximum pressure on opposition scrums.
It is behind the pack that the Pumas are likely to find the going tough, and much will depend on the form of the mercurial Juan Martin Hernandez.
The Racing Metro full-back has able support in Leicester centre Gonzalo Camacho and Bath wing Horacio Agulla, but their half-backs are not yet of proven international quality.
Phelan may employ Contepomi at fly-half, but his performances against England suggested he is past his best.
The Pumas have consistently shown since finishing third in the 2007 Rugby World Cup that they should not be under-estimated.
South Africa skipper Jean de Villiers certainly will not be making that mistake, as he told Supersport.
They will be tough as always. It’s never easy when you play those unions and Argentina had great preparation as well. They played a B or C team against England, they rested their mainline players and have prepared well. It will be a tough test.
With their formidable scrum, the Pumas will target the Wallabies pack that struggled against the Lions over the summer, and their home clash with Australia in Rosario on the final weekend looks like their best chance of a maiden win.
They may cause an upset along the way but expect the Pumas to again be propping up the table at the end of the tournament.
Argentina 2013 Rugby Championship schedule
Aug 17 v South Africa (Johannesburg)
Aug 24 v South Africa (Mendoza)
Sept 7 v New Zealand (Hamilton)
Sept 14 v Australia (Perth)
Sept 28 v New Zealand (La Plata)
Oct 5 v Australia (Rosario)