San Juan (Argentina) (AFP) – The Jaguares became Pumas this week and Argentina coach Daniel Hourcade hopes they can take stunning Super Rugby form into two Tests against Wales, the first on Saturday.
Jaguares, effectively the national team, compete out of Buenos Aires in the annual southern hemisphere franchise competition and their recent form has been a revelation.
After only two victories in their first seven matches, they have won six in a row, including a shock triumph in New Zealand over two-time Super Rugby champions Waikato Chiefs.
When Super Rugby took a break to accommodate Test rugby, Hourcade called up all 23 Jaguares who helped defeat the South African Coastal Sharks to the national squad, known as the Pumas.
Hourcade is desperate for success after two horror international seasons following an impressive fourth place at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England.
Argentina were beaten nine times in 13 Tests during 2016 and fared even worse last season, losing 10 of 12.
Two of the six victories came against Italy, the weakest Six Nations side, and others were achieved over minnows Japan and Georgia.
Even the wins over stronger South Africa and France had a hollow ring as the two countries were experiencing difficult times that eventually cost both national coaches their jobs.
But as the Pumas prepared for Tests against the Dragons in San Juan this Saturday and Santa Fe seven days later, Hourcade wore a broad smile.
“The boys arrived for our training camp in magnificent condition,” he told the Argentine media. “They are in very good shape.
“They have won six consecutive Super Rugby matches and are in great mental and physical condition.
“We want to take advantage of this winning culture by beating Wales twice and Scotland during June.”
– Improved discipline –
Jaguares’ turnaround this year after two Super Rugby seasons in which they made little impact is due to various factors.
New coach and former Pumas hooker Mario Ledesma has married forward power with exciting running and, vitally, improved discipline.
Yellow and red cards have cost the Jaguares and Pumas dearly in the past with frustrated Argentines often committing offences in full view of match officials.
Handling skills among forwards and backs have also improved dramatically with a considerable reduction in knock-ons.
Winger Bautista Delguy, who has scored eight tries in Super Rugby, is the only uncapped player in the first Test line-up.
Injured full-back Joaquim Tuculet will be sorely missed, but fly-half Nicolas Sanchez is a potential match-winner thanks to his flair and goal-kicking.
Wales arrived in Argentina after snatching a 22-20 victory over South Africa last Saturday in a scrappy, error-strewn Washington battle of attrition.
New Zealand-born coach Warren Gatland says he is on a mission of discovery, which explains why he made eight personnel changes and one positional one for the San Juan Test.
“There are about 10 players who did not come with us and if their form is good enough, they will probably make the World Cup squad next year,” he said.
“However, we must guard against complacency. I want the players resting at home to know that those here in Argentina are also fighting for places on the flight to Japan.
“We are facing a couple of tough Tests, especially with the Jaguares doing so well in Super Rugby.”
Co-captain and lock Cory Hill will lead the team instead of Ellis Jenkins, the skipper in Washington who will watch from the grandstand this time around.
Rhys Patchell (fly-half) and Gareth Davies (scrum-half) form a new half-back combination while 74-cap George North switches from outside centre to the left wing.