Pumas leading the race for second?

Mon, 29 Aug 2016 13:55

OPINION: rugby365 columnist Brett McKay thinks that Argentina have overtaken both the Springboks and Wallabies in the Rugby Championship pecking order.

The Rugby Championship already looks New Zealand's to lose, but even then it would take a series of colossal implosions between now and the final games for that to happen.

The evident gap between the world's best side and everyone else seems to have rather staggeringly increased, despite the fact the All Blacks lost a more than 800 Test Caps worth of experience at the end of 2015 - a couple of once-in-a-generation players among them.

The good news for Wallabies fans, after two rather sobering Bledisloe Cup losses, is that they don't have to play New Zealand every game.

There is, perhaps, some light at the end of a really dark tunnel currently.

But Argentina's impressive win over South Africa in Salta at the weekend suggests that there might not be a lot between the three other teams in the Rugby Championship, and even that the Pumas are really well placed to topple the Springboks and the Wallabies on the final standings.

Currently the Springboks and Los Pumas are on five competition points each, with the Wallabies obviously yet to break the duck, but with the Boks heading to Australia after the weekend off, and Argentina to New Zealand, it's entirely plausible that the Wallabies could find themselves joining those teams on the table with a win.

The Wallabies aren't going to get close to the Springboks, you say?

Well, I've glanced at enough rugby forums over the weekend to know that a lot of the angst Wallabies fans are currently feeling - and it's a lot, believe me - is being shared by Springbok fans, too.

The scoreboard suggests there should be a decent gap between South Africa and Australia. But if the perception of performance is anything, the Boks aren't travelling anywhere near as well and two close scorelines suggest.

There's a lot of parallels in the angst too.

The coach is under fire for selections and playing style, the skipper is under fire for an evident downturn in form - and with good, in-form options in the background being overlooked - and the team itself is under fire for a couple of less-than-convincing performances to start the Championship.

The Springboks head to Brisbane next where they've only won three times in more than half a century, and with a midfield unit struggling to create opportunities. The Wallabies are hardly overflowing with creative juices themselves, but such have expectations plummeted that they can now go out and play with complete freedom.

And that freedom can be a powerful thing. It often unencumbers teams out of form to pull a performance seemingly out of nowhere. I can already imagine the teams will be pretty close in the betting.

Already it feels like the matches between the three sides will be split home and away, as the Pumas and the 'Boks have done already. It means that whichever team can be the first to crack an away win gains a huge advantage over the rest.

The Pumas might not do that in New Zealand next weekend, but they will certainly fancy their chances in Perth against the Wallabies the following week.

While the Wallabies are battling with their 'identity' and figuring out how they're going to play this year, the Pumas have quickly shed the inconsistency that plagued the Jaguares throughout Super Rugby and are looking every bit like the side that stormed to the World Cup semifinals last year.

Their scrum perhaps isn't quite the force it was in 2015, but it's more than capable of doing damage. The line-out and breakdown remain strengths, too, but the big improvement has been in their attack. Whereas many of the same players looked a bit lost in a Jaguares jersey, for the Pumas they just seem to be clicking.

Juan Martin Hernández is back to that form in which he becomes one of the most gorgeous players on a rugby field to watch, and is again playing with a calming presence on teammates around him. There's no panic about the Pumas in attack, and they look all the better for it.

The way they held on in those final few minutes in Salta - particularly when the wheels had threatened to fall off - and more so that they did it through their scrum, will give them a much-needed confidence boost.

If they can push the All Blacks, and even sneak a bonus point somewhere, then how they fare against the Wallabies will determine whether the 2016 Rugby Championship is their best result yet.

The two clashes, in Perth and London, against Australia, won't carry anywhere near the fears they might have a few weeks ago.

By Brett McKay
@BMcSport
@rugby365com

* Brett McKay is an Australian rugby writer and commentator, who has sat through more Bledisloe Cup and World Cup Final losses than any human should have to endure, and is desperately hoping for a change of luck soon. For regular musings on rugby, sport, and all manner of life's trivialities, you'll find Brett on Twitter at @BMcSport