Argentina are exploring the four corners of the earth. Since late summer the Pumas have roamed the southern hemisphere, to South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Now it is time for the northern hemisphere, the air miles ticking ever upwards.
The side Juan Manuel Leguizamon will lead out at Twickenham this afternoon has clocked up close to 35,000 miles in three months, but they are not travel-sick.
“To be honest, I really enjoy it,” says Leguizamon, the former London Irish No 8, who captains Argentina in the absence of the injured Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe. “You’re playing against the best teams in the world. It’s hard sometimes if you have to travel for 100 hours and your head is everywhere. But rugby life is short and we must enjoy it. The chance to play in the Argentine jersey is always something really big. We don’t really care how it happens.”
For many of the visitors a game in Europe demands a less arduous itinerary, given that 13 of the starting 15 play in the Premiership or Top 14. It is also a part of the world that has proved more hospitable on the field than a chastening first couple of seasons in the Rugby Championship.
This year brought Argentina six defeats from six. They shipped 73 points in South Africa, then lost by five at home, ground out two honourable defeats against the All Blacks and lost by only a point in Australia. Their final game, in Rosario, saw Australia run in seven tries. This followed England’s summer tour, when a Lions-depleted side won both Tests with ease, galloping in 83 points.
Argentina arrived in England in a depleted state, without Lobbe and their on-field conductor Juan Martin Hernandez, and most damagingly without their coach Santiago Phelan, who quit on the eve of the tour amid talk of dressing-room unrest. It has left the new man, Daniel Hourcade, scant time. He took his first training session on Monday; the omens then are not good. Yet a year ago a similarly muddled side stumbled off the plane, headed to Cardiff and turned a half-time deficit into an emphatic victory, an achievement that proved far beyond England.
Hourcade, a former scrum-half, has taken the Stuart Lancaster route through the coaching ranks, via the country’s junior teams and the Pampas, the Argentine side that play in South Africa’s domestic competition (keeping those air miles high). Yesterday the talk around the team hotel was upbeat, the party line stuck to; two years in the Rugby Championship has improved them despite 11 defeats out of 12, an assertion accompanied by an insistence that if there had been any unrest there isn’t any now.
“We’re slowly getting better,” said Leguizamon. “We’re not instantly going to be a big team just because we’ve played in two Rugby Championships. We know it’s a long term process. But we’re growing as a team and we have confidence in our weapons.”
Hourcade did admit having such a brief time in charge before taking on England has been challenging. “It’s very difficult to start from one week before a game but this is a team that has been playing the Rugby Championship together, they know the system and I have been working with the team, with the system, with the Argentinian Rugby Union so I know what is going on and the players know me,” he said.
His aim, with an eye on the 2015 World Cup, is to broaden his side’s approach. “Dynamic,” said Leguizamon, his English immaculate, jumping in to help out as Hourcade’s coaching philosophy was translated from Spanish.
“We need to start to play more with the ball,” said Leguizamon. “We’re trying to do that, to move the ball and get some momentum into our game. We know it will be difficult to do that here. We’ve been analysing their defence and they are really strong. But we know that if we can get the ball we can hurt the English team.”