Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Argentina Braves Southern Fray ; Rugby Championship Debuts with 3 Traditional Powers and a Scrapper

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Argentina Braves Southern Fray ; Rugby Championship Debuts with 3 Traditional Powers and a Scrapper

Article excerpt

Los Pumas will join the rugby giants South Africa, New Zealand and Australia in the inaugural Rugby Championship, which kicks off this weekend.

It has been a long time coming, but Argentina will finally be welcomed into the elite Southern Hemisphere brotherhood when the inaugural Rugby Championship kicks off this weekend.

For years Los Pumas were left isolated in world rugby, scrimping together a handful of tests against quality opposition each year while England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France and Italy did annual battle in the Six Nations tournament, and New Zealand, Australia and South Africa competed in the Tri-Nations. Now, until 2015 at least, Argentina will get to enjoy the benefits of regular top-level competition against its Southern Hemisphere rivals.

The battles Argentina has won away from the field -- ensuring its elite players will be released by their French and English clubs for international duty, the change in structure of the Argentina Rugby Union and the establishment of high-performance rugby programs for players in Argentina -- mean the contests on the field can finally begin, although there will be significant hurdles to overcome there, too.

Facing the top three nations in the world twice over an eight- week period will not be an easy task for the eighth-ranked Argentina, which is getting its first taste of tournament competition outside the Rugby World Cup.

But Argentina has had a helping hand as it tries to get up to speed with the demands of competing against the three Southern Hemisphere heavyweights.

Graham Henry, the former coach of New Zealand who led the All Blacks to their World Cup victory last year, has been in Argentina working with Los Pumas and the Argentina Rugby Union's high- performance department with the blessing of the New Zealand Rugby Union, which still employs him.

Henry will be an adviser to Argentina coach Santiago Phelan when the team plays in New Zealand and Australia and for those return fixtures in Argentina.

Henry says the challenge Argentina faces in playing in the Rugby Championship is similar to the one Italy faced when it joined the Six Nations tournament in 2000.

"Italy have taken some time to get their feet under the table. They've won the odd test but usually are in the bottom two of the competition," Henry said. "Argentina, I think, are going to find it demanding.

"But the only way to get better is to play in these competitions. That's the beauty. It also gives aspiration to young rugby players in Argentina," he said.

"They are playing in structured competition against the best teams in the world. What's better than that?"

Argentina has enjoyed success at World Cups. It finished third in 2007, which prompted the push for inclusion in regular international competition, and lost to New Zealand in the quarter-finals last year. …

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