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SPORTS | 01-07-2022 09:49

Globetrotter Cheika looking to revitalise Argentina

Former Australia coach Michael Cheika takes charge of Argentina for the first time on Saturday when Scotland visit the northern city of San Salvador de Jujuy.

Former Australia coach Michael Cheika takes charge of Argentina for the first time on Saturday when Scotland visit the northern city of San Salvador de Jujuy, as the globe-trotting handler begins the tricky task of forming a cohesive unit out of his eternal exiles.

Having already coached in Italy, France, Ireland, his homeland, Japan and even Lebanon – where he was in charge of the national rugby league side – there was just one continent missing from Cheika's CV.

It is not a totally new experience for the former Leinster and Stade Français coach, who was an advisor to his predecessor Mario Ledesma from 2020-2021.

But he has his work cut out to assemble a team that has not played at home in almost three years, since a 46-13 thrashing by world champions South Africa in Salta.

Since the coronavirus pandemic broke, the Pumas were forced to play all their Rugby Championship matches in New Zealand and Australia, while their other games have been away to European sides.

It has not helped, they have lost eight of their last nine test matches. 

The loss of their club side Jaguares' place in Super Rugby was another blow.

After four years in the competition, their 2020 campaign was cut short by the pandemic.

New Zealand and Australia then closed ranks and set up their own domestic competitions while the South African sides joined the European United Rugby Championship.

Some hasty transfers, mostly to Europe, at least allowed the international players to limit their lost time on the sidelines.

Lining up at their new clubs, Argentines have quickly impressed.

Back row Pablo Matera won Super Rugby with New Zealand's Crusaders, prop Joel Sclavi, set for his debut off the bench against Scotland, was European champion with La Rochelle, and hooker Julián Montoya and utility back Matías Moroni were crowned English champions with Leicester Tigers.

 

'Putting on layers'

Cheika has little time to mould a team in his image, and he lacks the advantage his predecessor had in the Jaguares club side essentially mirroring the national team.

The 55-year-old wants to get off to a positive start, but also has one eye on the World Cup in 14 months time.

"You have to do the two things at the same time: prepare for Saturday, but also put layers on," he said after announcing his team on Thursday.

"Because we have two plans: one more towards the World Cup, and one to help us win on Saturday."

Cheika has rung the changes from Argentina's last match, a humbling seven-try 53-7 rout in Dublin against an Ireland side that had just beaten the All Blacks.

Four changes in the backs and three in the pack. 

There is even a return for veteran hooker Agustín Creevy, on the bench for the first time since the 2019 World Cup.

The door remains open to those left out, though.

"It's always very difficult to pick a team of this level, there are many players who could play," said Cheika.

"There is good competition in the team, and this competition will be rewarded with people getting opportunities in the next games to take their chances."

 

'Building for something'

There have been few happy outings since the last World Cup when Argentina bowed out in the group stage following defeats to France and England.

But one such highlight was a first ever victory over New Zealand, 25-15 in November 2020.

Cheika has history in turning things around, and often in little time.

He took the reins of Australia in October 2014 in the middle of a run of six defeats in seven internationals.

But within his first year he had guided the Wallabies to victory in the truncated 2015 Rugby Championship, and to the final of the World Cup.

In 2008, he guided Leinster to their first Celtic League title in six years and the next season their first ever success in the European Champions Cup.

He then helped the New South Wales Waratahs to their first Super Rugby title in 2014.

Saturday's clash will be the start of Cheika's latest project.

"We know that we're building for something, towards the World Cup next year," he said.

"We are starting now what we think will take us to the top level.

"We know that on Saturday we will not be perfect, there's many things to work on, many new things, but I've seen very good intentions from the players.

"They want to learn, they want to play rugby the way we are hoping to play."

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by Philippe Bernes-Lasserre, AFP

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