Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Rugby Championship: Master Plan for Hernández to play Inside Centre?

Argentine international Headcoach Daniel Hourcade has already made notable changes to the make-up of Los Pumas in terms of players and game plan. The thirty-man Pumas squad currently undergoing a high performance fitness regime at EXOS in Pensacola, Florida is a vastly different group of players than that involved in the 2013 Rugby Championship. Missing through injury are a number of players who were regular under Santiago Phelan while there are also changes in personal with Hourcade having dropped a number of players for a variety of reasons. With the squad having mulitiple fullback and fly half options but a shortage of established inside centres Hourcade arguably appears set to move Juan Martín Hernández into the postion.  

Despite Daniel Hourcade having stated that the door remains open for further players to be called up  for the Rugby Championship the chances of excluded players being included are slim to non existent. Hourcadism has emphasized the importance of players spending time together  to be able to deliver the best possible results. It brought an end the complicated system endured by Marcelo Loffreda and Santiago Phelan of players arriving in the squad during the week of a test match and meant Hourcade did not select many European based players for the home tests against Ireland and Scotland.

The return of mid-field players such as Santiago Fernández or Gonzalo Tiesi is therefore extremely unlikely. The players selected in both centre positions provide a clear indication of what Hourcade has in mind to try to close the gap on Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and see Argentina not only compete better but win test matches.

In addition to Juan Martín Hernández Hourcade's squad features two specialist fly halves, three fullbacks and three mid-fielders. The selection of Hernández at either fly half or fullback is not likely. At fly half Hourcade has Nicolás Sánchez and Santiago González Iglesias who started tests in May and June. While the same players who started at fullback during this same period, Joaquín Tuculet, Lucas González Amorosino and Santiago Cordero, have also all made the squad.

In the mid-field the quantity of players selected is smaller with just three centres covering both positions. There are, therefore less than two players per position which is unlike all other positions and is a strong indication that there are players from other positions selected who will be seriously looked at and evaluated to play in the mid-field.

Hourcade's three centres are Marcelo Bosch, Matías Orlando and Jerónimo de La Fuente. Of the three Bosch has the most experience at inside centre, having played there on occasion for Biarritz and also starting a against Italy in the position in 2008 and against France in 2012. Neither Orlando nor de La Fuente are likely to be starting Rugby Championship matches and neither actually played at inside centre against not only Ireland and Scotland but also Chile and Uruguay. Starting instead was Gabriel Ascárate who will not play again this year after suffering a severe knee injury against Ireland.

In place of Ascárate Hourcade started a fly half against Scotland - Santiago González Iglesias and arguably did so to evaluate him as an option for Argentina's 22 shirt in the Rugby Championship. He could provide cover for both fly half and inside centre making him a replacement for either Sánchez or Hernández. Orlando played the test at outside centre replacing de La Fuente whose three test starts have have all been at outside centre.

Players from other positions who could play at outside centre are Tuculet and wingers Horacio Agulla and Manuel Montero. The performances of Tuculet against Ireland suggest he is likely to be Argentina's fullback, thus removing him from the list. Agulla started at outside centre against Italy last November and remains a real possibility and although Montero arguably has all the skills to be a very good option at outside centre Hourcade has utilized him on the left wing, his position in the 2014 IRB Pacific Cup.

Change at inside centre has already been confirmed. In addition to Ascárate, Fernández and the retired Felipe Contepomi Hourcade has not selected Martín Rodríguez Gurruchaga, Juan Pablo Socino or Javier Rojas. Six players considered as inside centres are therefore missing, four of which could have been selected by Hourcade as could have Tiesi who captained Argentina at inside centre against Georgia in June 2013.

Soon to turn 32 the speed of Hernández is not what it once was making him less of a danger from counterattack from fullback and also less of a threat as a first receiver as a ball carrier. His attack is, however, far from being the only notable weapon in his armory. Hernández has long been considered to be an excellent defender with a solid technique more than capable of putting in big hits and has accurate passing in both directions appear to make him the leading option to fill the vacant inside centre.

The position is not altogether new for Hernández. The serious knee injury that he suffered playing for Racing Métro in March 2011 was at inside centre. Similar to the current state of Los Pumas he was picked in the position due to the needs of the team at the time and him being deemed to have the required skill set to do well. Hernández played 12 that day against Bourgoin with François Steyn at fullback and Jonathan Wisniewski at fly half. This past season he started one Top 14 match in the position. 

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