Saturday, February 1, 2014

Should Hourcade retain the Veteran Back-Three?

New Pumas headcoach Daniel Hourcade faces a difficult assignment of turning around Argentina´s worst year in the professional era. Off-field complications contributing to the downfall of Santiago Phelan left Argentine rugby in a brittle state with Hourcade handed the task of producing change. Central to the resolution will be re-discovering the ability to score tries. 2013 demonstrated a gap between Argentina and its opponents who were able to score more tries, notably outwide. 

The team that Daniel Hourcade has inherited from Santiago Phelan is aged which suggests that a shake-up would not be out of the question. Hourcade has, perhaps, begun this. He did, afterall, select Horacio Agulla at outside centre against Italy in 2013. This was the case due to Marcelo Bosch being on club duty for Saracens and Gonzalo Tiesi having injured himself earlier on tour. Argentina, nonetheless, had cover in the position with specialist mid-fielder Javier Rojas on the bench and a second mid-field squad member, Matías Moroni left out of the match day 23. 

The option of selecting Agulla resulted in a much younger back-three than that which has been fielded throughout the year. It gave Argentina a trio far closer to that of its Rugby Championship rivals. 

New Zealand
South Africa
JM Hernández (31)
I Folau (24)
I Dagg (25)
Z Kirchner (29)
H Agulla (29)
J O´Connor (23)
B Smith (27)
W Le Roux (24)
G Camacho (29)
N Cummins (25)
J Savea (23)
B Habana (30)
*Starting Back-three players and age per nation

When considering the ages of wingers and fullbacks from other Tier One nations the argument that Phelan was far too settled and needing to be more open in his selections gains support. Wales has a starting back-three of Leigh Halfpenny (25), Alex Cuthbert (23) and George North (21). France has Brice Dulin (23), Yoann Huget (26) and Maxime Médard (27) and Scotland has Stu Hogg (21), Sean Maitland (25) and the presently injured Tim Visser (26).

Previous Argentine teams offer further insight. The teams that Marcelo Loffreda fielded at Rugby World Cups 2003 and 2007 had much younger back-three´s than the one from the 2014 Rugby Championship. Phelan´s back-three used in New Zealand 2011 was also younger than that of 2014. Should Hourcade start the same players in Rugby World Cup 2015 then the players would all be in their 30s - an improbable scenario for any a Tier One rugby nation. 

Rugby World Cup 2003
Rugby World Cup 2007
Rugby World Cup 2011
I Corleto (25)
I Corleto (29)
MR Gurruchaga (26)
JM Nuñez Piossek (26)
L Borges (27)
G Camacho (27)
D Albanese (30)
H Agulla (23)
H Agulla (27)
     *Starting Back-three Argentine players and age 

Curious is the lack of tries scored by Pumas wingers in the 2013 Rugby Championship. James O´Connor scored in the opening fixture against New Zealand while Ben Smith scored three in the same match. Bryan Habana scored for South Africa later that day with Argentina´s only try going to Felipe Contepomi. Ben Smith and Israel Folau scored tries in the second round match in Wellington while in Mendoza Marcelo Bosch and Juan Leguizamón crossed for Argentina and winger Bjorn Basson did so for South Africa.

The second section of the competition saw Leguizamón score against both New Zealand and Australia on the road while no others crossed. Argentina conceded two tries to scrumhalf Aaron Smith in Hamilton while Julien Savea also scored. Folau crossed against Argentina in Perth. Two of South Africa´s four tries in the away win over Australia were scored by back-three players with Willie Le Roux and Zane Kirchner crossing. Pat Lambie was a back-three replacement in Auckland and scored while all four of the All Blacks tries went to forwards.

In the third and final section of the competition Kirchner and Le Roux again scored against Australia whose only try went to replacement winger Chris Feauai-Sautia. Argentina was tryless on the same day in La Plata while the All Blacks scored four tries, three of which were scored by wingers with Savea scoring one and Ben Smith two. Smith scored the following weekend in Johannesburg in what was one of five All Black tries. South Africa scored four with Habana scoring two and Le Roux one.

Later on that day Argentina was thumped 54-17 by Australia in Rosario. Argentina scored twice through Bosch and Martín Landajo while Australia scored seven tries with Folau scoring three and wingers Adam Ashley-Cooper and Joe Tomane scoring one each. The following table is a summary of the tries scored by fullbacks and wingers per country in the 2014 Rugby Championship.  

New Zealand
South Africa
*Tries scored by wingers and fullbacks per nation in 2014 Rugby Championship

Was Phelan fielding the wrong players? The biggest win since 2011 was against Wales in November 2012 when Argentina scored twice and both were scored by wingers with Camacho and Juan Imhoff both beating Lions fullback Leigh Halfpenny. Phelan decided against starting Imhoff for much of the Rugby Championship but, perhaps more importantly, was how he used Agulla. The Bath winger was used as a mid-field battering ram in the 2012 and 2013 wins over Wales and Italy. 

Argentina´s two wins in Europe were therefore without him playing wing. Argentina´s try in the 2013 win in Rome was scored by Imhoff. Argentina´s narrow loss against Australia on the Gold Coast in 2012 featured Hernández and Imhoff combining to set up a long range try with Imhoff feeding back-rower Julio Farías Cabello for the score. Camacho scored against New Zealand in the following round while Lucas González Amorosino set up Landajo and Imhoff scored against the Wallabies in Rosario. 

In the 2013 Rugby Championship, however, Argentina was unable to score back-three tries. It meant the South Americans lacked the threat of others despite having scored through wingers the previous year. Indeed, the inability of back-three players in 2013 is not an Argentine characteristic. Corleto scored against France in the 2007 tournament opener while wingers Borges and Agulla both scored against Ireland. Borges scored two against Georgia and Federico Martín Aramburu crossed in the same match and again in the Bronze Final against France. Corleto scored his second try of the tournament against Namibia and also scored in the Bronze Final. In 1999 Argentina eliminated Ireland with Albanese scoring the only try of the match.

Argentina is therefore not a rugby nation lacking the requirements to score tries through its wingers. It had significant problems in 2013 with the team lacking a game plan to create and finish opportunities. Hourcade started Santiago Cordero and Joaquín Tuculet in the back-three in November. They are aged 20 and 24. Perhaps it suggests that Hourcade has a vision to fielding attacking players outwide which is in contrast to Phelan. 

Was Phelan overly obseesed with trying to defend that it cost Argentina in attack? Regardless of the truth Hourcade is faced with the unenviable task of defeating Ireland and Scotland in June without leading players and then winning matches in the Rugby Championship. History shows Argentina can beat these teams and there is no reason why it cannot if it is able to establish a thorough game plan which the players can confidently act to carry out. 

1 comment:

  1. Pre-injury, Camacho was the only one of the three veterans worth persisting with. Agulla definitely has to go.