After the opening round of the 2014 Rugby Championship South Africa is the leader. The Africans defeated Argentina 13-6 in Pretoria in a one try to zero victory. The only try of the match saw scored by South African scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar in the second minute. Rain made conditions very challenging but Argentina tried to attack and came close to completing a late draw. In the other match of the round the All Blacks winning streak was ended as the Wallabies sealed a late 12-12 draw in a tryless match. Round two will be played next weekend with matches taking place in Auckland and Salta.
Nicolás Sánchez kicked all of Argentina's points and impressed as a fly half with three clean linebreaks. In the days leading up to the match there were a variety of inquiries as to why Argentina has multiple unattached players - Nicolás Sánchez, Juan Martín Hernández, Lucas González Amorosino and Joaquín Tuculet.
The reason is that all four are playing for Argentina after returning home from France. They are all free agents who will be able to join clubs at the completion of the Rugby Championship and based on the performance against South Africa in Pretoria there should certainly be some interested parties.
Playing at fly half Sánchez outperformed the highly-gifted junior Springbok Handré Pollard. With South Africa being unable to control the flow of play coach Heyneke Meyer replaced Pollard early on in the second half. Sánchez was forced into playing inside Santiago González Iglesias at the last minute following the injury-forced withdrawal of Hernández. Argentina, nonetheless, came out better than in previous years when forced to adapt through injuries.
With González Iglesias starting the selection policy of headcoach Daniel Hourcade appeared to be justified. He had done so in the same position against Scotland in June as Hourcade opted against selecting a player based in Europe whom he is not interesting in utilizing in the Rugby Championship. As such Santiago Fernández and Benjamín Urdapilleta missed out on international duty in June.
González Iglesias was able to therefore be far better prepared for today's match than were players called up on very short-notice under former coach Santiago Phelan. A common theme under Phelan was the inability to adapt and prepare ahead. Hourcade has quickly shown that he has a strong understanding of getting more out of players per position than simply selecting based on reputations.
The performance of captain Agustín Creevy at hooker was remarkable when considering Phelan gave him only one start in a period dating back to 2009. Creevy had the skills when in control to win scrums and lineouts and also be a mobile ballcarrier offering speed and go forward ball in a significantly more fluent manner than Eusebio Guiñazú whom Phelan used throughout 2012 and 2013.
Creevy had to look on from the bench under Phelan as did Joaquín Tuculet who debuted in the Rugby Championship today. His positional and decision making play showcased a player who clearly knows what he is doing. He also showcased good returns from the deep and a reliable boot. Similarly, Ramiro Herrera proved to be very much a quality replacement for the injured Juan Figallo and Maximilano Bustos.
In total, Hourcade started seven players who were not regulars under Phelan. As individuals all appeared to have justified their place in the team and as a unit they worked well, understanding what it was they were doing. The defensive game plan proved to be exceptional at times as attacking Springbok lineouts and scrums were well guarded against which saw Argentina in with a chance of completing a draw down to the final seconds.
In comparison to the opening round fixtures in 2012 and 2013 Argentina appear to be a much more organized team and one that will be very dangerous for all opponents at home. The return fixture against the Springboks in Salta will be a first for both teams. South Africa will be playing in the city for the first time while Argentina will have a greater belief than in the two Mendoza tests after losing 27-6 and 73-13.