|Photo: UAR Agustín Creevy looms as a key starter for Argentina|
Santiago Phelan faces some tough decisions over the coming days. Prior to the second of two matches against New South Wales the Argentine headcoach had dropped a bomb shell or sorts by releasing specialist outside centre Gonzalo Tiesi and the versatile Martín Rodríguez Gurruchaga from the Pumas squad to face South Africa. Also released were backrower Benjamín Macome and tighthead prop Juan Pablo Orlandi. The four remain in the squad but will not fly to South Africa. Their tournaments are far from being over due to the there being six matches of the highest level of rugby found anywhere.
Phelan used the second match against the visiting Australians to clear up some issues - notably not who would be starting but, rather, who would be on the bench. Indeed this is precisely why he fieled Joaquín Tuculet at outside centre on Friday evening in Salta. What he was most likely looking to clarify was who ought to be on the bench to replace Marcelo Bosch if need be. Without Tiesi and Rodríguez Gurruchaga the candidates were Tuculet and Horacio Agulla. The matches underlined that Agulla is not likely to start on the wing due to the contribution and skills of Gonzalo Camacho and Juan Imhoff having illustrated why they are Argentina´s leading wingers at this point in time. Agulla, therefore, is a potential replacement with either him of Tuculet likely to wear the 23 shirt.
Similarly, Lucas González Amorosino started at fullback with Juan Martín Hernández playing flyhalf in Salta. This saw Nicolás Sánchez start neither warm-up matches. The matches revealed nothing new but underlined what is already clear - Argentina needs its top goal kicker in the starting lineup. For this reason Hernández was tried as the kicker and he was mixed as was Felipe Contepomi. This means Sánchez ought to be the starting flyhalf with Hernández playing fullback and, as such, there would be no flyhalf on the bench. Instead Hernández could move to flyhalf as could Contepomi who appeared to offer more than Santiago Fernández. Bosch could also, if required, perform at pivot. Martín Landajo still has the upper hand over Tomás Cubelli at scrumhalf though the gap is minute.
The game plan used against New South Wales and Los Jaguares also indicates a more expansive approach with wingers running lines in centre field and centres being used far more at the break down. The result is a need to have multiple play makers because if the defence were to shut down the play then the scrumhalf would have limited options which would increase the chances of kicking. As such under the game strategy revealed thus far the chances of Hernández starting at fullback but being used regularly in the line are great.
The starting combination is likely to be Contepomi and Bosch with Agulla appearing very likely to cover wing and outside centre. This leaves one position on the bench open to arguably either González Amorosino or Fernández. The earlier covers fullback and wing while the later covers inside centre and is also an option at flyhalf. Fernández is therefore more likely to be on the bench and could well be one of three back replacements together with Cubelli and Agulla.
The only player who can be said to be certain to start in the backrow is the captain. Corcho Fernández Lobbe was the best Puma at the breakdown and appears likely to where the 6 shirt this year. He was joined by Leonardo Senatore in both matches while Pablo Matera and Juan Manuel Leguizamón both started one match each. Of the three none were altogether consistent in the friendly matches. With Leguizamón playing in the Pro d2 and not the Top 14 his performances appear to have dropped in level. Senatore was prone to handling errors while Matera had moments of brilliance and others of error. The ten year age difference that separates Leguizamón and Matera is sufficient for Phelan to favor the Lyon backrower for the time being.
Julio Farías Cabello is also in the squad and has been the starting number 6 for the majority of the past three years. He has covered secondrow too and is in the squad to be considered for either position. Phelan´s selection and apparent game plan suggests Farías Cabello is not likely to start in the backrow against South Africa. Instead he is up against Matera for a place on the bench. Matera´s ball carrying skills would appear to be ideal to confront South Africa which further suggest Farías Cabello is better suited to the secondrow. Also worth pointing out is that he will turn 35 next month.
Patricio Albacete missed the New South Wales fixtures due to injury. He was hurt against Los Jaguares and continues in a race against time to be declared fit to face South Africa. He is confirmed on the plane for the journey meaning that he will start if the doctors permit it. In his place Phelan started Mariano Galarza in both matches and it was he who stood up to be one of the leading Pumas players in the two match series. He overshadowed Manuel Carizza on both matches as a ball carrier and appeared to have an overal superior work rate. As such Phelan now faces the choice of either starting Galarza or having him and not Farías Cabello on the bench. Galarza was in the World Cup squad in 2011 and was a Pumas beforehand but in 2013 he appears to be reaching new heights as a player. Aged 26 he is in a good position to be in the starting lineup at some point in the Rugby Championship but, like Matera, possibly not just yet.
The new sctrum rules clearly favored Argentina against the Australians. What had been a demolished scrum against England in June was not such against the Waratahs players as the first choice Pumas scrum was very efficient at holding firm and pushing back its counterparts. Marcos Ayerza did well in place of the retired Rodrigo Roncero and the 30 year old appears to be on his game as much as ever before. He did leave the match early due to injury, however, and may not be fit to face South Africa. 21 year old Nahuel Lobo performed well as a replacement with the scrum continuing to dominate. Similarly at tighthead the 25 year old Juan Figallo had good cover in the form of 20 year old Matías Díaz. he young Pumas props, in other words, are in good shape to emerge as a future feared scrum should the signs be proven correct that the bajada is set to return.
The same formation that started the second friendly against New South Wales should repeat itself. This being the case then Agustín Creevy would join Ayerza and Figallo in the starting frontrow. He certainly had more pace and go forward at hooker than Eusebio Guiñazú did this month. Creevy was also able to find his jumpers well in lineouts and was not inferior at scrum time. Creevy, in other words, ought to start against the Springboks. His ball carrying abilities are ideal to take on Adriaan Strauss or Bismarck Du Plessis. Creevy also has crucial leadership experience.
1 Marcos Ayerza, 2 Agustín Creevy, 3 Juan Figallo
(Leicester, England), (Worcester, England), (Montpellier, France)
4 Manuel Carizza, 5 Patricio Albacete
(unattached), (Toulouse, France)
6 Juan Fernández Lobbe, 8 Leonardo Senatore, 7 Juan Leguizamón
(Toulon, France), (Worcester, England), (Lyon OU, France)
9 Martín Landajo, 10 Nicolás Sánchez
(C.A.S.I, URBA), (Bordeaux, France)
12 Felipe Contepomi, 13 Marcelo Bosch
(Newman, URBA), (Saracens, England)
11 Juan Imhoff, 15 Juan Martín Hernández, 14 Gonzalo Camacho
(Racing Métro, France), (Racing Métro, France), (Leicester, England)
16 Eusebio Guiñazú (Bath, England)
17 Nahuel Lobo (Newcastle, England)
18 Matías Díaz (Teque, Cuyo)
19 Mariano Galarza (Universitario de La Plata, URBA)
20 Pablo Matera (Alumni, URBA)
21 Tomás Cubelli (Belgrano Athletic, URBA)
22 Santiago Fernández (unattached)
23 Horacio Agulla (Bath, England)