Wednesday, December 24, 2014

RWC 2015: Contenders to Represent Argentina - The Centres

Photo UAR
In the sixth edition of an eight part series Argentina 2023 takes a look into the players in contention to represent Argentina in the mid-field, or centres, positions at Rugby World Cup 2015. Los Pumas headcoach Daniel Hourcade has stressed that he is seeking four players per position to choose his squad from for the tournament. Since replacing Santiago Phelan as headcoach in October 2013 Hourcade has utilized a number of players in both mid-field positions. In 2014 it, nonetheless, became clear as to which players are favorites to start the crucial matches for Los Pumas at the World Cup. Who then are the players under consideration to play in England / Wales 2015? 

Hourcade took over a struggling team in October 2013. Argentina had been winless in the Rugby Championship and also ineffective against England in the two home test matches in June. The South American's victories in 2013 up until that point had been against South American opposition and Georgia who played a test in San Juan in June 2013.

Captaining Argentina against Georgia was Gonzalo Tiesi, the same player who had started at outside centre against England in Argentina's opening pool fixture of Rugby World Cup 2011. Joining Tiesi in the mid-field was Santiago Fernández who was coming off strong form for Montpellier in the Top 14 and playing between Rugby World Cup 2007 veterans Tiesi and Felipe Contepomi.

The starting 10-12-13 combination would not play together again, ever. Both Tiesi and Contepomi were injured with the former having his World Cup ended in the opening half against England. Phelan made changes during the match with Fernández and Bosch both acting as play-makers and winger Horacio Agulla moving to outside centre.

Fernández was used at fly half for the remaining four matches of Argentina's campaign. Starting at inside centre in the second match was Martín Rodríguez Gurruchaga who otherwise played at fullback in the tournament. Bosch joined him in the centres v Romania and remained there for the remaining tournament matches. Inside Bosch v Scotland, Georgia and New Zealand was Contepomi.

Bosch had been thrust into the position at both club and international level. Playing for Biarrtiz in the Top 14 Bosch was predominantly utilized in the 13 role in the 2010-2011 season due to the club's needs. When Tiesi was not fit to face Wales in August 2011 Bosch then debuted in the position at international level and would remain there over time.

Argentina's entrance into the Rugby Championship in 2014 came with a price as those involved that played in Europe would not be available for international duty in June 2012, June 2013 or June 2014. Phelan tackled the issue in June 2012 by playing Contepomi at inside centre in both tests v France and the one-off international against Italy. He was free to play but missed the Rugby Championship.

Joining Contepomi was a different partner for every test as Gabriel Ascárate, Joaquín Tuculet and Agustín Gozio each started once. None of them, however, would play in the Rugby Championship which meant Argentina's home tests did not serve at all to prepare any mid-fielder for the Southern Hemisphere tournament.

Phelan's centre combination utilized in all six matches of the 2012 Rugby Championship was identical - 12 Fernández, 13 Bosch. Changes were made in November as Tiesi returned from injury to start at outside centre v Wales and England. He was joined by Contepomi in Cardiff only for the veteran to be injured early which required the team to adapt and Bosch started at inside centre in Lille the following week. For the final test of 2012 Fernández and Bosch were reunited.

Despite limitations in June 2012 Argentina won two out of the three home tests. Twelve months later it was not as such. Argentina was well beaten twice by England before winning against Georgia. Tiesi was 13 for all tests but was always joined by a different partner as Contepomi, Ascárate and Matías Orlando each started once.

With Contepomi off-contract with Stade Français he was free to play for Argentina in the Rugby Championship and did so, starting four of the Rugby Championship test matches before retiring. Playin inside centre for the two other tests was Fernández while Bosch started five times at outside centre and Tiesi once.

Without Contepomi Fernández started v England and Wales ith Bosch joining him on both occasions. Neither player, however, was available for the final test of the year v Italy in Rome. Tiesi had been on tour but was injured as a replacement v England which saw Hourcade starting Horacio Agulla at outside centre. Inside him was Ascárate while Javier Rojas was on the bench.

The changes for the Italian test were a sign of greater modifications which Hourcade undertook in a variety of positions in 2014. He began the year by fielding stronger players for the CONSUR Cup than had been the case during the Phelan years.

Despite being fit and playing for Aviva Premiership and Top 14 sides neither Fernández nor Tiesi played at all for Argentina in 2014. Back from Scotland Ascárate started in the mid-field with the debuting Jerónimo De la Fuente. The pair would play consecutive test matches against Uruguay, and Chile to start against Ireland in a better position to those who did so v England twelve months prior.

Ascárate suffered a serious knee injury v Ireland which he would not recover from to play again in 2014. In his place Hourcade started Santiago González Iglesias and Matias Orlando together against Scotland. They had also been involved in the CONSUR Cup with González Iglesias starting at fly half against Uruguay.

For the Rugby Championship Hourcade selected both De la Fuente and González Iglesias with the later being a late replacement for Juan Martín Hernández to start the opening weekend's fixture against South Africa in Pretoria. While it was his final test start of the year he would be rotated with De la Fuente on the bench and feature as an outside centre v France after coming on in the 16th minute in the final test of the year. His special performance was a case in point to the theory that Argentine fly halves can easily convert to outside centre by natire of the style of play in the country.

Bosch started five tests during the Rugby Championship and two in November. The other player to start at outside centre was Horacio Agulla who did so in the wins against Australia in Mendoza and Italy in Torino. He was joined by De la Fuente in Torino with Hernández playing fly half nd Matías Moroni covering from the bench. Hernández otherwise was used at inside centre whenever available. 

The 2014 Tbilisi Cup coincided with the June internationals. Starting the matches in Georgia for Los Jaguares were different mid-field combinations for all three matches. Newcastle's Juan Pablo Socino started against Italy 'A' and Georgia at inside centre and Javier Rojas did so against Spain. Rojas played fly half against Georgia with Juan Capiello being the starting outside centre. Juan Ignacio Brex played 13 in the matches against Italy 'A' and Spain.

Los Jaguares' second major assignment of the year, the Americas Rugby Championship, saw changes with Brian Ormson and Joaquín Paz starting the opening fixture against the USA Select XV. Juan Ignacio Brex then joined Paz to face Uruguay 'A' while he then traded positions wth Brex for the final fixture v Canada 'A'. Of note is that the tournament was played outside a release window for international duty. As such those based in Europe were not available.

Those involved with Los Jaguares are all in the frame for possible Rugby World Cup selection as are all who played for Los Pumas in 2014. Also in consideration are those not selected that continue to play at the elite level professionally. Hourcade will require no fewer than four centres for the World Cup and will be certain to have players that can play other positions which could give him up to six options for the two positions.

Inside Centre
Four Contenders - Gabriel Ascárate, Santiago Fernández, Juan Martín Hernández, Juan Pablo Socino

Outside Centre
Four Contenders - Horacio Agulla, Marcelo Bosch, Jerónimo De la Fuente, Matías Moroni 

Other Positions
Fly half

Gabriel Ascárate
Inside Centre
Natación y Gimnasia
Jerónimo De la Fuente
Inside Centre
Santiago Fernández
Inside Centre
Juan Martín Hernández
Inside Centre
Horacio Agulla
Outside Centre
Marcelo Bosch
Outside Centre
Santiago González Iglesias
Outside Centre
Matías Moroni
Outside Centre

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