After having faced South American opposition last month it is time for Argentina to take on the big boys with the first of three June tests taking place tommorrow in San Juan at the foot of the Andes Mountains. The city´ new stadium, the Estadio de Bicentenario will host its first ever rugby test match after it was contructed to act as the city´ venue for the 2011 Copa America. It was one of eight venues for the tournament. It is not the first time Los Pumas have played at the venue, however, as Los Pumas took on a South American Invivational XV in a friendly match in August 2011 which the Argentine side won 78-15.
The city is Argentina´ tenth largest and is located far from the capital. At a distance of 1,150KM from Buenos Aires and 420KM from Córdoba the selection of San Juan underlines the UAR´ commitment to growing the game in Argentina. While Buenos Aires has had more than its share of home tests this year it gest only one with Argentina vs New Zealand taking place in La Plata, 60KM east of Buenos Aires city. The other five home tests have all been spread throughout the country with San Juan being followed by Córdoba and Tucumán in June with France visiting while South Africa will play in Mendoza and Australia in Rosario.
Argentina are using the test to give new players a chance while 24 players have been rested in preperation for The Rugby Championship. As such there are a host of fringe players starting for Los Pumas with seemingly a final chance to impress being given to older players such as winger Agustín Gosio, flyhalf Ignacio Mieres, hooker Eusebio Guiñazú and backrowers Genario Fessia and Tomás Leonardí. They will be joined by up and coming players with Joaquin Tuculet making his international debut at fullback, Belisario Agulla looking to replicate his brother on the wing while the promising Francisco Goméz Kodela is one to look out for in the pack as a player who could well go on to be a regular starter. There has been a late change to the Pumas starting lineup with Esteban Lozada pulling out of the match for family reasons and being replaced by Benjamin Macome. This opens up a spot on the bench which has been taken by Tucumán´ Santiago Guzmán. It means the Pumas secondrow is very depleted given Julio Farías Cabello has only just made the move from the backrow and his Los Pampas XV vice captain, Mariano Galarza is out injured.
Italy are also not at full strength but are a lot closer to it. Roughly half of the first choice team will start with a stereotypical strong pack having been selected with some talented backs. The Italian side has a numebr of non-Italian players who are there based on their family history or beacue they have lived three or more years in Italy as professional rugby players. While there is no place for centres Gonzalo Canale or Gonzalo Garcia or backrower Sergio Parisse the teams highly regarded Argentine tighthead prop, Martín Castrogivanni will start. Canada´s Robeto Barbieri will join him in the back, filling Parisse´s position.
History: The teams have met on seventeen occasions with Argentina winning eleven matches and Italy five. The other match was a draw. Argentina have won five of the last six matches with the loss being by a single point in 2008 in a similar match. On that day Argentina were very depleted following the late finish to the French season and the World Cup year. Argentina had also lost a number of players to retirement to further resticted the avaliability of players. Sicne then the sides have met twice, both in Italy, with Argentina winning 22-14 in November 2008 and 22-16 in November 2010.
Key Match up: A true test of the credentials of Leonardí will come as he faces the veteran Bergamasco while McLean vs Tuculet will be interesting at the back but this matches mouth-watering clash is that of Roncero vs Castrogiovanni. It is as good as it gets at scrum time with both being amongst the best players from the past decade in their position. It is the last time they will go head-to-head with Roncero to retire from all rugby latter on this month.
Prediction: Despite being depleted, Argentina has had the rare luxury of having players prepare properly together. Seven of the starting lineup played for Los Pampas XV in the Vodacom Cup and know the game plan well. The10-12 combination should be too good for Italy while the frontrow should be able to hold off Italy´s powerful combination. Italy look to be strongest on the wings with Venditti and Benvenuti both tremendously talented players. They could, however, be too far from the ball. Argentina to win by 5 points.
Italy vs Argentina, November 2010
1 Roncero, 2 Guiñazú, 3 Gómez Kodela, 4 Macome, 5 Farías Cabello, 6 Fessia, 7 Leonardi, 8 Senatore, 9 Landajo, 10 Mieres, 11 Gosio, 12 Contepomi, 13 Ascárate, 14 B Agulla, 15 Tuculet
Reserves: 16 Postiglioni, 17 Tetaz Chaparro, 18 Guzmán, 19 De la Vega, 20 Cubelli, 21 Montero, 22 Miralles
15 McLean, 14 Venditti, 13 Quartaroli, 12 Sgarbi, 11 Benvenuti; 10 Burton, 9 Gori, 8 Barbieri, 7 Bergamasco, 6 Zanni, 5 Bortolami (captain), 4 Pavanello, 3 Castrogiovanni, 2 Festuccia, 1 De Marchi.
Reserves: 16 Giazzon, 17 Romano, 18 Furno, 19 Favaro, 20 Tebaldi, 21 Bocchino, 22 Toniolatti