Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Rugby: Pumas plan ahead for 2011

BUENOS AIRES: In naming a huge squad of 46, Argentina rugby coach Santiago Phelan had more on his mind than tests this month against incoming Scotland and France.

Phelan was also thinking up to two years ahead, when Argentina will compete with heavyweights New Zealand, South Africa and Australia in an expanded Four Nations.
It was the stunning third-place showing at the 2007 World Cup - where the Pumas beat hosts France twice - that was the impetus for rugby's powers to plant Argentina in either the Tri-Nations or Six Nations 2011.

Geography beat convenience. Most of the best Pumas play for European clubs.

"We think we will be ready for 2011," said Argentine Rugby Union president Luis Castillo. "Of course we will suffer a little bit, but you always suffer in rugby, but more playing teams like those three big ones."

The International Rugby Board and Tri-Nations partners have eased Argentina's inclusion by providing set-up funds for the first four seasons and giving Argentina's professionals a six-week release from their clubs.

The countdown begins this month, with two tests against World Cup pool opponent Scotland in Tucuman on June 12 and in Mar del Plata on June 19, followed by France in Buenos Aires a week later.

"Now begins the last stage of the buildup for the World Cup," Stade Francais flanker Juan Manuel Leguizamon, back with the Pumas after straining knee ligaments against the French Barbarians a year ago, told La Nacion newspaper.

"It's in a little over a year but in reality it is nothing because there are few opportunities to get together and play. In this window we need to show signs of a mature team. It's time to figure things out, polish our tactics and begin to see what style we'll take to the World Cup.

"While there is a core of guys who were in France 2007, the mix with the new generation means we need to consolidate. And in these games is the time to do so. As a squad we are growing stronger, and in last November's tour we progressed. But we need to go to the World Cup trained and ready. We cannot go to New Zealand with ups and downs or issues to resolve."

Giving Argentina regular, tough competition from which they will hopefully improve was the point of joining a new Four Nations. Last year the Pumas had only six tests, while most of the other top-10 teams played twice as many.

The Pumas were last seen in November celebrating at Murrayfield, where Martin Rodriguez's drop goal sealed a 9-6 comeback win over Scotland. All 22 of that team are in Phelan's squad, with Leguizamon and regular captain Felipe Contepomi, who has not played for Argentina since the 2008 June home series against Scotland after a knee injury.

Also included are hooker Mario Ledesma and prop Martin Scelzo, who helped Clermont Auvergne win the French championship last weekend, on the same day Leicester was winning the English title, thanks to prop Marcos Ayerza and winger Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino.

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