GAVIN RICH | Unlocking the mystery of how the Pumas put the cat among the pigeons

Those who argue that it shows up the Springbok decision not to travel to Australia are misguided

22 November 2020 - 17:53 By Gavin Rich
Argentina players celebrate after stunning the All Blacks in Sydney.
GAME ON Argentina players celebrate after stunning the All Blacks in Sydney.
Image: Argentina Rugby Union/Twiter

The Argentina performances in their first two Tri-Nations matches have been impressive. But those who argue that they shows up the Springbok decision not to travel to Australia are barking up the wrong tree.

No one expected the Pumas to beat the All Blacks in their opening game. With the Kiwis boasting far more game time and having played together four times against the Wallabies across the Bledisloe Cup and Tri-Nations, the expectation was that the underdogs would lose heavily.

After winning so well in recording their first triumph against New Zealand, the expectation then was that they would run out of energy against the Wallabies in Newcastle in their second match. That didn’t happen. Far from them tiring, it was the Pumas who came back from a deficit late in the game to grab a 15-all draw.

But there was a little fact mentioned by the commentators in Newcastle that took away some of the mystery of the Pumas’ achievement. They have been in camp since August 13. It doesn’t detract from their achievement, but their being in camp for more than three months explains their combativeness and readiness to play. They have been in Australia for a considerable proportion of that time and played a few warm-up games to build match sharpness.

They also have an extended squad in Australia and would have been able to stage assimilated match practices that would further have improved their readiness. By being together so long, the Pumas had the sort of build-up to the Tri-Nations that the Springboks had for last year’s World Cup in Japan.

They were on a World Cup-type footing and, with doubt over where Argentina would fit in at franchise level in future, they had the motivation of feeling they were playing for their survival.

That they weren’t able to go the Puma route though is regrettable, because SA’s return to play has been underwhelming.

The Springboks would have been unable to go into camp on August 13. The country was still in a stage of lockdown that prevented players from training in groups of more than five and they were still to be given the official go-ahead to resume contact training. Interprovincial travel was banned, let alone international travel.

Had the Boks been able to do what the Pumas did, the arguments against them playing in what would have been the Rugby Championship would have been less valid than they were.

That they weren’t able to go the Puma route though is regrettable, because SA’s return to play has been underwhelming. And that is not just because stadiums being closed is debilitating, something that makes it impossible to compare what we have seen over the past month and a bit with what we saw in the Aeteorao, New Zealand’s version of regional Super Rugby.

I was at the Stormers-Cheetahs game last weekend and it was depressing. The scene was summed up afterwards by Stormers captain Steven Kitshoff when he praised his reserves not for their contribution on the field but for the noise they generated to support the players on the grass.

But while the sad scenario of players being forced to create their own atmosphere and energy can’t be helped in these extraordinary times, and there should just be happiness that play is possible, there was some imperfection about the planning for Super Rugby Unlocked that further undermined the product.

It started on the opening weekend with the clash of jerseys in the Bulls-Griquas game, but arguably the biggest mistake was made when the fixture list was drawn up.

The Bulls were the most impressive team and deserved to win the trophy, but it took something away from their achievement that four of their six games were at Loftus. The Stormers, who came second, played four of their six Unlocked games away from Newlands.

How can you say there is integrity in a league competition when there is that sort of imbalance? The Covid disruptions that caused the Lions to play just four of their scheduled six games could also not be helped, but from a tournament integrity viewpoint that could also have been handled differently.

Given that the onus should be on each team to do everything possible to limit the chance of Covid infection, it would make more sense to declare a game that is cancelled because of the virus a forfeit for the infected team rather than punish the non-affected team by sharing the points.

You can contract the virus anywhere and you can be unlucky, but in the absence of a bio bubble, the onus should be on the competing teams to ensure they isolate as much as possible when in competition. It may seem tough, but it is a way of ensuring they play and thus preserve their livelihood.

Apart from being fairer, it would promote self-discipline. The points carried over from Unlocked count for the Currie Cup that starts this week and it is not too late to apply that rule retrospectively.

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