“The boys have prepared to win the Rugby World Cup,” said the Argentina coach, Mario Ledesma, on the eve of leaving the country for their final camp before the tournament in Japan.
There are high expectations for a team that will either be successful or succumb to disaster. There will be no grey area for Los Pumas, for whom the minimum acceptable is reaching the quarter-finals.
In the past three tournaments, Argentina finished third (2007), lost in the quarter-finals to the eventual champions (2011) and fourth (2015).
The big game for the South American powerhouse will be the opening clash against France, as it could decide the fate of either team in Pool C. With England dangerously – that is for their opponents – peaking at exactly the right time, all indicators show that the game in Tokyo will decide the second qualifier from a pool that also comprises USA and Tonga, both of whom can rightly argue this is the Pool of Death.
Los Pumas last won a game in August 2018, but when you constantly play the All Blacks, Springboks, Wallabies, and you arrive to the end-of-season tour operating on fumes, it is understandable that they are currently 11th in the World Rugby rankings.
Preparation for Japan has been intense and although the team failed to win in the shortened Rugby Championship – coming painstakingly close against the All Blacks – they should benefit from the residual effect of a monumental Super Rugby season in which Jaguares reached their first final among the best teams the southern hemisphere can offer. They provide 26 of Argentina’s squad of 31.
There are a few differences with that team, namely the pivotal role of No 10 where Nicolás Sánchez has been brought back from Stade Français. He is one of three players selected based overseas, overturning an internal regulation stating that players not in the country wouldn’t be selected for national honours.
Saracens’ Juan Figallo, after a couple of injury-marred seasons with the London club, is fit and raring to go. The second fly-half is the bolter in the squad. Castres’ Benjamín Urdapilleta, who had last played for Los Pumas in 2013, became one of the top performers in French rugby, and was selected on the back of 40 minutes of Test rugby in two games against the Springboks.
Since taking the head coach’s role 13 months ago, Ledesma has mapped the road to Japan, to ensure they peak against France. As a four-time player at a World Cup, and a Wallabies assistant coach four years ago, Ledesma is well aware of how to prepare his team to be ready.
“We spoke about setting goals,” says Ledesma. “Neuroscience says that you have 80% more chances of reaching a goal by setting it, visualising it and working every day towards it. Obviously, the first goal is reaching the quarter-finals. In an open World Cup, after quarters anything can happen, and it will come down to us.”
He concludes: “These players have prepared all year to be world champions. We must dream big and set the goals that will take us there.”
• Frankie Deges is media manager for South America Rugby