Argentina v England, Old Trafford
Puma Ayerza hopes for a bright future
June 4, 2009
Leicester's Puma prop Marcos Ayerza is confident of a bright future for his national side © Getty Images
Argentina roll in to football's 'Theatre of Dreams' this weekend with their sights set on taking another step towards replicating their stunning feat in finishing third in the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France.
Manchester United's Old Trafford stadium will host the Pumas as they take on Martin Johnson's fledgling England side, with both squads expecting a tough examination as they look to rebuild their confidence.
Argentina's effort in 2007 was based on a fiercely committed pack of forwards, the sniping aggression of scrum-half and captain Agustin Pichot, the pace and power of fullback Ignacio Corleto and the sweeping brilliance of fly-half Juan Martin Hernandez. Now, Pichot has retired, along with experienced No.8 Gonzalo Longo-Elia, Corleto is considering his options after a wretched run of injuries and Hernandez has struggled to regain the swagger that he exhibited two years ago.
Giving hope despite the retirements and loss of form is a long-term plan from the Pumas management however, and a host of young players waiting to take to the world stage. A squad member in 2007 and an integral part of Leicester Tigers' Guinness Premiership victory this season, prop Marcos Ayerza is one of these players.
He understands the challenge awaiting this new Pumas side under coach Santiago Phelan, and also that the element of surprise has dissipated after the fireworks of their opening win over France at the World Cup.
"I think that Argentina was in a position where we had a peak time during the last World Cup," Ayerza told ESPN Scrum. "But many of the most important players from that squad, Pichot, Longo-Elia, they have retired. We're trying to rebuild a new team and squad with a new trainer. We didn't have a very good set of June Tests in 2008 but we made a step forward during the autumn internationals against Italy, France and Ireland. We're building our confidence as a new squad for a new era with a new identity as a team.
"We have shown the world that we can perform and get on top of many big teams. Nowadays every team respects us a lot - before they came in to games thinking about how much they would beat us by but now we're a top-tier world team."
Despite their status, according to the IRB world rankings, as the fifth best side in world rugby Ayerza is quick to point out the difference in resources between England and Argentina. Rugby in Argentina is still an amateur sport, and as such is struggling in a professional world.
Saturday's game at Old Trafford was moved from Argentina to boost the finances of their union, the sides will also face off in Salta on June 13, and continue the work that Ayerza speaks passionately about - building a squad in Argentina to compete with the best in the world. The first step in this pursuit is the formation of the Jaguars, the Argentina 'A' side that will contest this season's Churchill Cup in Denver.
"England have so many world class players to select from," he said. "It's different for us, we have very few players playing abroad and there's a big difference with the amateur players back in Argentina. England has a professional structure and has many, many good players in each position.
"There are big efforts to have a base of at least 40 players in a professional routine in Argentina, having some games against 'A' teams from many countries. That will help a lot to reduce the gap between the amateur players playing in Argentina and the professional players playing in Europe. It's going forward and we're now seeing in these June internationals three or four players from this system. Hopefully we'll see the results and how the gap between amateurism and professionalism in our squad is reduced."
Ayerza has been plying his trade in the Premiership since 2006 - but was already an international when he joined Leicester, having made his debut against South Africa in 2004 while playing amateur rugby for Cardenal Newman in Buenos Aires.
While he admits that the ultra-professional Premiership is a far cry from Argentina's club game, he hopes that increased competition for the Jaguars will build a strong player base and further the Pumas' claim to be included in a regular competition - most likely the southern hemisphere Tri-Nations featuring New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.
"Coming from club rugby in Argentina to the Tigers, one of the biggest teams in Europe and one of the most professional, has improved me," he said. "As a player, my game has improved from playing week in, week out against great players and playing with international players at the Tigers. It's always going to be tough to match this competition that we have in the Premiership. If we can give more games to the Jaguars it's the best thing to do to help them to become competitive."
"If we can show that we can have a squad in Argentina that can play every week and show that it's as good as any professional structure we can have maybe a calendar with our Jaguars and the Pumas of maybe ten or 15 games a year, as many as any international team plays. The best thing to have is to have regular competition. That can improve any player whether they are professional or amateur. The best thing is competition."
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.