Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


Lessons From South America

As I dragged myself out of bed at 6am yesterday to watch the World Cup Quarter finals, splashing warm tea on my face and enjoying a mug of bacon, I was surprised by some of what I saw. Actually, that is technically not true. I was more surprised by something that I heard.

The Australia and South Africa game messed with my head a little bit as the Antipodeans won, despite being in their own third for 75% of the game. However, I was not really that surprised that the breakdown reached disgraceful levels of competition: the southern hemisphere press at this World Cup have made a song and dance about how the SANZAR teams play free flowing, high scoring rugby. As this game was one car crash away from being a crime scene, referee Bryce Lawrence perhaps thought it was his duty to allow hands in at ruck time, so that more play could be strung together and turnover tries more likely?

The result of this was that David Pocock took it upon himself to try and pinch every ball that came near him. Sometimes it was magnificent and legal. Many times, though, it was a hand digging round the side or pouring over an additional man that had made it a ruck. Fair play to Pocock: he played the referee brilliantly and he must have the strongest torso in World rugby (as well as a face that can take a punch very well!).

As unlikely a victory as this was for Australia, however, it was not what surprised me. It was not even an instance or a statement in or about this game. No. It was something that happened, followed by something that was said, in the All Blacks versus Argentina game.

As that final Quarter Final played out us neutrals had to endure some snore inducing discussions about whether Colin Slade was good enough to replace his holiness Dan Carter. Indeed as Slade dropped a pass 5 minutes in that nearly led to a try for Argentina you could almost feel five million Kiwis willing an injury on him. With 35 minutes played, the shrunken Slade limped off, and someone else in Aaron Cruden, who still didn’t quite measure up to Dan, was tasked with stringing play together.

This was just preamble, though. It was still unremarkable. What surprised me in this game was actually the moment that Argentina scored. In fact it was the moment leading up to that score. Not because of the fact that New Zealand leaked a try, but because of the manner in which they leaked that try.

Before flanker Cabello pounced over the try line there was a break. No. 8 Leonardo Senatore picked from the base of a scrum and cruised past McCaw and Read into the dead zone between the back three and the stand-off. He made a B-line for the right-hand corner and as the commentator said something about being an “amateur” he was brought down, metres from the line.

I sat up.

Before I could process what I may have misheard the Argentines were whooping and cheering, delighted that they had broken the All Blacks and were in this game.

Was it true? Was Senatore a punter like me or you?

I did some quick research. Sure enough, the 6ft 2 no. 8 was listed as playing for hometown club Gimnasia y Esgrima (Rosario) on the official Pumas website. Although technically an amateur, with no big European team experience and a name few would know, he had streaked past men whose faces were probably on lunch boxes Down Under. In short, he fitted in.

This got my mind working. I checked the IRB website to see how many players were playing in Argentina, as well as how many kids. Nothing. No information courtesy of the IRB. I could not possibly guess at how far rugby was going, so I hit the blogs.

After about an hour and a half of reading several Argentinean blogs (some in broken English, some in my misGoogled, broken Spanish) I had gleaned that Argentina had about 100,000 players across all clubs, and 250 ‘elite’ players. There are currently no professional teams in Argentina.

Again this perplexed me. With the exception of the known stars in Europe Argentina had no pro rugby and 250 support players, of varying ability, to pick from and they still beat Scotland. A team that has had professionalism in some guise since 1997. Wow.

So I considered what lessons we in Scotland could learn from those in South America.

There club rugby is intricate, but it involves numerous steps up to siphon off the best players and ensure they play competitive rugby.

Each region of the vast country has their own Union. Some are stronger than others. With a population of roughly 40 million, huge poverty and an obsession with football it is obvious that there will be few rugby players as a result, in comparison to the population. Each of these Unions have their own club competition. Buenos Aires has the strongest of these competitions, but in order to keep up some of the other Unions combine to form better leagues, so, for example, the regions of Santa Fe, Rosario and Entre Rios all have one set of leagues, known as the Torneo Del Litoral. Buenos Aires, Córdoba and Tucumán all have their own regional competitions.

Moving on from this there is more competition for the better teams. From the Torneo Del Litoral the best four teams go on to play in the Torneo Del Interior alongside teams that qualify from the Noroeste, Centro, Noreste, Pampeana, Oeste and Patagónico leagues. Sixteen teams in total. Meanwhile, outside of this, in Buenos Aires their league runs alone as it is the most competitive. At the end of Bueonos Aires’ Torneo de la URBA and the Torneo Del Interior there is another step up.

The best two teams from both of these competitions go on to play each other in semi-finals, the winner of both competitions playing the runners-up of the other competition. The final match crowns the winner of Nacional de Clubs and the best team in Argentina. In November 2010 it was won by Hindú Club, perhaps Argentina’s most successful and well known team.

Now in Scotland we could say that with a smaller country we have less geographic issues to contend with and our best teams are already in our top league, playing each other regularly. “We don’t need to learn lessons from the Argentine set-up”. But the fact remains that a guy that has played in the Torneo Del Literal, moving from there to the Torneo Del Interior and perhaps onto the Nacional De Clubes has just run past Richie McCaw.

Do we have amateurs that could do this? Maybe, maybe not.

The truth is that our competitions are not nearly as gruelling as this. We also do not have the level of rep rugby that Argentinean amateurs can play. They have all the age grade teams, but they also have a competition for regional selects. Their Campeonato Argentino competition runs through March and April and eight regions play with their best players from the Interior and Nacional competitions. There is further promotion of the best players they have.

In the summer there was even greater exposure as the best players from that competition were selected to play for a Pampas XV that competed in the Vodacom Cup alongside Currie Cup teams. An ‘amateur’ team that won that entire competition. Many of that team ended up at the World Cup and in the Quarter Finals.

This we do not have. We have a British & Irish Cup for three teams, a half season Cup competition that is struggling to attract publicity and fans, and a two-game-programme for a Club International. The competition is differing and exclusive for three teams, and the amount of highest quality games is limited for the best players.

I will admit that after researching I was surprised at the system in Argentina. They did not throw themselves into professionalism like Scotland did. They have built things up. As a result they are producing international standard ‘amateurs’ and they are good enough to win against Currie Cup teams. Their national team is also entering the SANZAR competition, formerly the Tri-Nations, and they look like they have enough quality to support at least one Super Rugby franchise.

Things could be looking up for Argentine rugby, and there is a tiny gap between their best club players and their international stars. They have surprised me, but what can I learn from them?

Well until we at least try to emulate their District competition we will never have enough competition for our two Club International squads. We will also never have enough high-quality game-time for our promising kids. We also need more competition for those B&I Cup spots, so that the product we put into that competition is both competitive and a result of a gruelling process.

Argentina play very few international matches. Maybe, now we are 10th in the World, behind Tonga, and even less of a lucrative and attractive touring option to the top tier nations, we should become more insular with our rugby. At least that way we may have more hardened players for Edinburgh and Glasgow to choose from…

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8 Responses

  1. I can confirm that the All Blacks are on the side of Weetabix tins and boxes, for sure!

    Interesting to see their system is still managing to turn out players of a high standard despite a lack of a professional structure. Is some sort of resurrection of the district competitions the way forward for us?

  2. I’ve been ranting for years, mostly to myself and with support from the father inlaw, that the system in Scotland sucks.

    Personally I’d scrap the pro teams, invest the money in restructuring the system with a proper well funded district system and let the cream rise to the top. Yes the current cream would get their arses kicked through out Europe, but the goal is to develop players for the international team. Not to compete at European club level, that would be nice…

    What would be nice is to see proper clubs competing at euro level, not made up clubs.

    Hohum, never going to happen though…

  3. John,

    Without the pro teams, our players would have no exposure to Heineken Cup or Amlin rugby, and would probably not even get into the Rabo12 thingy. Tell me, how will less players playing at a high quality level produce a better international team?

  4. To follow on with a bit more background info on Argentinian rugby (I spent a season coaching in Rosario 4 years ago)

    The first Professional players in Argentina were created earlier this year or at the end of last year. There are a number of them spread across the country.

    In Rosario, home of GER, there are I think 3 or 4.

    As ‘professionals’ they receive personalised development and training

    I believe there are actually 2 Argentinian sides that compete in the Vodaphone Cup in South America and the new professional players compete for these teams

    There are multiple competitions which take place throughout the year with the reality being only a couple of months of off season before it starts again

    The year I was there my club – Universitario de Rosario competed in a pre season tournament, El Litoral, Torneo del Centro (now Torneo del Interior) which we won and the Nacional de clubes.

    Should a player in Rosario be involved in their local representative side (URR) which plays in the tournament at the beginning of the year, then the main competition – El Litoral, and continue through the various competitions their club will participate in during the year, including a pre and a post season one followed by Sevens tournaments (many on beaches such as Mar del Plata) then they can be playing for 10 months of the year

    This model will have to change though with the introduction of the Pumas to the Quad Nations next year. Given the timing of this tournament and the reluctance of most European pro sides to release their players, I see this as being a major handicap to the Pumas and the recruitment of professional players from Argentina by European clubs

    Given a choice of 2 players, one from say Scotland and one from Argentina who is slightly better, would you recruit the player who is going to have to disappear for a couple of months for the Quad Nations each year or one who is available when you want them?

    Instead of enhancing Argentinian rugby I believe that their introduction to this tournament will in fact cause more damage than good

    My personal opinion is that prior to involving the Pumas in the Quad Nations, at least one and preferably 2 fully professional Argentinian sides should have been incorporated into the Super 15.

    By doing this, not only would the overall quality of the Argentinian talent pool have been increased but a path to professional rugby within Argentina would have been created without having to leave for Europe. Should my fears of the reaction by the French and other clubs to forced releases of their players for the Quad Nations be realised then there would already be a fall back system in place to accommodate these players in a top level competition

    Time will tell and hopefully my fears will not be confirmed

    Incidentally in time with the introduction of these pro players within Argentina a number of at least part time Development Officers / Coaches have been created to assist the 2nd tier clubs in their development

    All to often the emphasis is put on players and their numbers but coaches are overlooked. Coaches need to be provided with access to the resources they need to get started, perform their regular duties and develop. This takes the form of resources, training, access to the latest thinking and drills and mentoring.

    It is no use turning out twice as many players if the coaching they are receiving is not of a standard suitable to the modern game. Coaching is now a profession and in the same way good players have to be identified as emerging stars of the future so do coaches…

  5. Thanks, Angus. Adds some colour to my basic understanding (do you still coach now?).
    This system has been in place for some time, though, hasn’t it?
    Maybe 10 months rugby can’t be all bad if they’ve been 3rd at one World Cup and in the QFs the next.
    As for the nation not benefitting from participation in a quad nations: their national team will compete in some games (mainly home) just now, but you are right- the French in particular will have none of it. Will this make their national team weaker? I’m not so sure… They will need to keep the likes of Augustin Creevy because he will take over from Ledesma but most players would be available: This years Tri-nations ran July 23rd to August 27th. Not all players will be in European playoffs…

    As for having more pro teams, they will now have union and sponsor pressure to compete. The Union will have a small budget ($10mil was a figure I read) but people like Visa will get a lot more exposure, so it is worthwhile them pumping more money into rugby. Also, unlike Scotland, they do not have two guaranteed spots in the Heineken Cup and no relegation whilst staying afloat: i.e. Edinburgh and Glasgow able to survive playing badly. No, they have a growing pressure to do well in the Quad and a need to have players. Their pro rugby looks to be growing organically and pressure should force their teams to up their game. Argentina have a lot riding on it.

    As for coaches, we have a hard enough time having quality coaches here. Some of our highest placed men, or people that had previously held lofty positions, have never even coached at our highest level of club rugby, Prem 1, before they were pushed up.

    Good luck to the Argentines. Likeable, aren’t they?

  6. Also, on Rory’s question: I strongly believe that there should be a reinstatement of the District championship. This afternoon The South take on the Barbarians in the name of the Bill McLaren Foundation, but it shows how easily a team can be set up in a short space of time.

    The problem is that the Club International play during the 6N- halfway through our club season. The Districts should be used to pick that Club International, but it could also run during the whole season, on either side of the CI games… playing each other twice and having a final. This would be easier with Prem1 being 10 teams next year, and before people moan it is too much rugby, it can also be used as a more intense indicator of how the best U20 players cope with pressure.

    For the junior versions of the district championships the coaches must be of the highest quality. For me U17 upwards for Caley, Borders, Edinburgh and Glasgow, as well as all international age-grade teams need the best coaches in our country- coaches with at least prem1 experience. Our academy support (tier 2, tier 1) for Glasgow and Edinburgh and our regional head of academies must have more coaching experience than just schools or junior rugby- sadly a lot of them don’t.

    As I have said in previous posts, after our disasterous World Cup we need big changes. This is one we could implement. More competition for CI places, more competition within a competitive 10 team league (taking 2 team out won’t miraculously bridge the huge gap between pro and club rugby, anyway, so even more competition should be good)…. in fact, screw it, this sounds like an article…

  7. Each time I check on what is happening in Rosario (Litoral) they seem to have new competitions appearing. 4 years ago was the first year of the Torneo del Centro (now Interior) and this year I saw about the pre and post season comps

    I think this whole “why should we stop playing just because one competition has finished so let’s make another one” mentality comes from their football. There they have 2 competitions the Appertura and the Clausura – opening and closing which is hte equivalent of 2 Premier League comps per year with a 4 – 6 week break between them

    They just love their sport so the concept of an Off Season is completely Alien to them

    The Pumas playing in the Quad Nations will definitely be great for them at an International level. My concern is more about what will feed that side

    My alternative, and original idea, for a representative competition, was a Battle of the Americas type Cup. This would be one involving 3 sides each from Canada and the USA, 2 or 3 from Argentina and maybe the national teams of Uruguay and Chile

    This would provide a competition in a tighter time zone than we currently have in the Super 15, opportunities for sponsorship from pretty well everywhere and how could the standard of rugby not improve in every country as a result

    A strong national side is typically built on a strong rep foundation

    Strangely, Australia is the exception to this in the current Tri Nations. SA has the Currie and Vodaphone Cups and NZ has the ITM Cup yet in Australia there is the Super 15 then Club and in Brisbane clubs are pretty much amateur with only a few being able to pay players anything and the majority perpetually fighting bankruptcy. This means if you aren’t picked up by a Super 15 academy by the time you are 19 you may as well start looking overseas

    If you can take anything from that it has to be that there is no magic formula and each country has to find what works for it but good, qualified, experienced coaches are key

    The Argentinians are a fantastic people and I am sure they will benefit for whatever changes are made and they have the potential to become a regular top 4 nation

    Al – took a season off this year to attend the RWC as it clashed with the finals but planning on being back coaching again this next season

  8. Angus:
    What is the system like for creating coaches in Argentina? Here we have 3 levels of accreditation that are tested practically and on knowledge of drills etc. (puting it crudely). We’ve had DOs for some time now, too.
    How is coach production there?
    As hideously capitalist an idea as this is could, say, an enterprising person step in with a named coach from NZ, Aus or the UK/Fra that isn’t with a team anymore and set up a ‘Coach Academy’? If everything is becoming more professional in terms of competition the coaching across the board would need to keep pace, right?

    I’ll set it up, you can be my man on the ground. What’s Brian Ashton up to these days?!

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Scottish Rugby News and Opinion