Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Rugby Championship: Hourcade's Four-Point Game Plan

Photo UAR
The national rugby union team of the leading rugby nation from the Americas, Argentina, is set to play its final home fixture this coming Saturday before the kick-off of the third annual Rugby Championship. Los Pumas will play host to Top 14 club side Grenoble in the northern city of Catamarca with headcoach Daniel Hourcade looking to do much more than have his side win the series 2-0. El Huevo is in rapid search of implementing an altered game plan, an approach he believes will give Argentina a greater chance of winning test matches. 

This Saturday's fixture is to be the second of two friendly matches between Los Pumas and Grenoble. The teams met last Friday with the South Americans completing a 44-21 victory at CASI in Greater Buenos Aires. The method of play utilized on Friday was similar to that from earlier tests against Chile, Uruguay, Ireland and Scotland. 

The game plan emerging is clear in that it is a hybrid combination of a style of play build on the traditional strong points of Argentine rugby together with alterations in two areas of play which are perceived as having let Argentine down in the first two years of the Rugby Championship. Together Hourcade's approach is to see four identified areas becoming the centre piece of Argentina's game plan set to continue in Catamarca and beyond.

The four points to have been identified are the scrum, aggressive defence, ball retention and player fitness. Of the four the first two are a continuation of the pilars of Argentine rugby. All Pumas teams, whether they be strong or not, have carried a stereotype of excelling in these two areas and Hourcade has no interest in changing this. 

Hourcade indeed spoke of the option of calling up Marcos Ayerza late as being centred around a need of having greater depth at prop now that two leading players, Juan Figallo and Maximilano Bustos, are out. The scrum won a penalty try against Grenoble last Friday without Ayerza suggesting that there is hope that the previously untested Lucas Noguera Paz and Ramiro Herrera could have it in them.

The melt-down which saw Argentine humiliated in Johannesburg last August was commonly thought of as being due to disorganization in defence. Reconfiguration saw such a loss being repeated again but Argentina was nonetheless badly defeated by the All Blacks in La Plata and the Wallabies in Rosario. End of year losses against England and Wales underlined the extent of the problem.

Hourcade succeeded in conceding far fewer tries against Ireland and Scotland in June 2014 than was the case against France in June 2012 and England in June 2013. This was the case despite Hourcade doing so with far more Argentine based players. With the benefit of time together the defensive strategy had more time to be altered and it proved to make it harder for teams to crack. With the return of European based players the same arrangements are now being utilized against Grenoble with a eye to the opening round of the Rugby Championship in Pretoria. 

The aggressive defence was a feature of Marcelo Loffreda's team from Rugby World Cup 2007 as it also was of Santiago Phelan's team in 2011. The difference between the two was not simply that Loffreda had a stronger team but that his team scored more tries than did Phelan's. Indeed Argentina scored no tries in the narrow loss against England in Dunedin and crossed once against Scotland in Wellington.

In order to correct this flaw Hourcade is highlighting the key area of ball retention. It is a policy build to succeed should Los Pumas be able to apply it well. Argentina has tremendous ball-carrying forwards across all positions. The selection of Agustín Creevy as the top hooker and captain is, indeed, related to this concept. Gone is Eusebio Guiñazú who was less mobile and also tighthead prop Juan Pablo Orlandi who lacked the penetration demonstrated by Ramiro Herrera for Castres late last season.

To ensure ball possession can not only be retained but that opposition ball can also be stolen Hourcade is looking to get more out of his back-rowers. The trio of Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, Juan Manuel Leguizamón and Pablo Matera are all quality ball carriers and threats at the break-down. Other squad members picked in the back-row by Hourcade support the theory with Tomás De La Vega, Rodrigo Báez and Javier Ortega Desio being mobile players on attack and defence. 

Ball retention failed late in the match against Scotland as did match fitness. The South Americans held a sufficient lead but nonetheless fell short following a Scottish try and drop goal. The inability to see out victories has been talked of as being mental but Hourcade has highlighted that it is also heavily related to fitness levels with Argentina having a disadvantage against its rivals. 

The Mendoza tests against the Springboks could both have been wins as could have been the 2012 test on Australia's Gold Coast while all tests against the All Blacks have showcased a competitive Pumas side in the first half that has faded in the final quarter. The high performance training in Florida attempted to address this area and it is hoped that in 2014 Los Pumas will be able to compete for the full 80 minutes. Should this transpire not only will one victory be possible but the chance of multiple victories will be greatly increased.

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