|Gabriel Ascárate and Nicolás Sánchez formed a new 10-12 combination|
The final test match for the year involving both Italy and Argentina took place in Rome on Saturday and was a must win for the morale both sides. Both sides failed to take opportunities to win matches in 2013 as despite Italy having a good Six Nations it was then defeated by Samoa and Scotland in June in matches it ought to have won. Argentina was unable to win against Australia in Perth and South Africa in Mendoza despite having the better of play on both occasions.
The November tests had seen Argentine badly defeated by England and Wales while Italy had been hammered by the Wallabies before completing a tight win over Fiji. In the case of Italy the loss against Australia was an indication of the lack of elite players while Argentina´s transition in conjunction with some missing players meant the teams that took the field against the home unions were not up to the required standard.
As in years gone by Italy fielded a number of Argentine players but with them now ageing there are questions over whether or not Sergio Parisse will be joined by Martín Castrogivanni, Matias Aguero, Gonzalo Canale and Luciano Orquera at Rugby World Cup 2015. Canadian Robert Barbieri is soon to join them on the wrong side of 30. Italy has two years to replace a number of these and other veteran players or it will have difficulty in breaking into the Rugby World Cup Quarter Finals for the first time.
The Argentine clean-out is well underway as veteran players are being replaced through a combination of selection, non-availability and retirement. Felipe Contepomi and Julio Farías Cabello will not play for Los Pumas in 2014 while the future of other aged players including Eusebio Guiñazú, Juan Pablo Orlandi and Juan Martín Hernández could well see them miss out on starting in the Rugby Championship in 2014. Daniel Houcade´s decision to move Horacio Agulla to centre gave Argentina more speed on the wing with the 25 year old Juan Imhoff and the 24 year old Joaquín Tuculet both starting in the back-three.
Agulla in contrast is, like Marcelo Bosch, 29 but with Santiago Cordero being 19 and Gonzalo Camacho and Lucas González Amorosino both having better try scoring records it is not likely that Agulla will start again on the wing in 2014. His future as a test player is in the mid-field and his experience will be central to Argentina´s chances of building an improved team in 2014 given the high number of young players in the squad. Cordero was joined by five others from the 2013 IRB Junior World Championship - Matías Díaz, Tomás Lavanini, Pablo Matera and Santiago Iglesias Valdez. All were in the squad based on their abilities and future needs.
Against Italy Maxi Bustos, Mariano Galarza and Benjamín Macome started in place of the three forwards commonly regarded as being the best from Argentina - Juan Figallo, Patricio Albacete and Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe. All three are aged 27 putting them, and the team, in a good position two years out from the World Cup. Such players can be penciled in as likely replacements for the crucial World Cup matches against New Zealand and Tonga and could well find themselves starting against the yet to be determined qualifiers from Africa and Europe.
In 2014 Argentina will face a similarly long and arduous international campaign. Italy needs to consider following Wales in hosting four test matches each November. The yet to be confirmed schedule is to see Argentina hosting two tests against Ireland and one against Scotland in June while after the Rugby Championship Argentina will play three tests in Europe against yet to be confirmed opposition. One test will all but certainly be against Scotland whom Argentina has not played in Europe since 2009 while the others will be against two of France, Italy and Ireland.
Together with the election of a new UAR president and a new headcoach in early 2014 the international schedule will be confirmed. The Federazione Italiana Rugby, for its part, is in need of rethinking the Italian teams international schedule. Italy has control over more of its players than most unions. Of the thirty players in the November squad twenty-four play for Benetton Treviso or Zebre, putting Italy in a comparable position to Wales who is hosting four autumn internationals. The FIR ought to look to secure two tests against Rugby Championship opposition in 2014 in addition to two Tier Two sides. With Tonga and Fiji having visited over the past two years the 2014 opposition should therefore be Samoa while either Canada or the USA could fit in to give Italy four tests and a strong chance of winning two of them.