Code Orange: How the Jaguares became a Super Rugby force in four seasons

Super Rugby
by Iain Payten

The New Zealander who oversaw Argentina’s entry into Super Rugby - and later helped build their franchise in Buenos Aires - says the success of the Jaguares in 2019 will continue through to the national side at the Rugby World Cup.

In only their fourth season, the red-hot Jaguares will play reigning champions the Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday in the Super Rugby Final. 

The Argentinian side are rated $5 outsiders by the bookies but on the back of a seven-game winning streak, and historical success playing in New Zealand, the Jaguares are bullish they can cause an upset and win a maiden Super Rugby title.

Cheering them on will be former SANZAAR chief executive Greg Peters, who was running the organisation when it included Argentina into the Rugby Championship in 2012, and followed up by issuing Argentina a Super Rugby licence in 2015.

After leaving SANZAAR, Peters then spent a year as high performance manager for the UAR between 2015 and 2016.

"Any team going to play the Crusaders in Christchurch when they’re sitting there waiting for them, it’s a tough ask,” Peter said. 

"But … but - you look at the way they’re playing the game now, you look at their defence, look at how they took the Brumbies’ lineout apart. They can deliver. 

"It’ll be tough but if everything goes your way - like any team going to Christchurch you need things going your way - they’re a chance.”

Peters, who used to run the Hurricanes and is now CEO of New Zealand Rugby League, this week recounted the rapid rise of the Jaguares, whose entry into Super Rugby was phase-two of a plan by former Puma-turned-World Rugby vice president Agustin Pichot to find a home for Argentina rugby.

"If you go back to 2012, when the Pumas came into the Rugby Championship, Agustin’s long-term vision was, obviously if they were going to be play in the major southern hemisphere competition, (Argentina) really needed to have a Super Rugby team,” Peters said.

"It was a natural progression for UAR to be in both TRC and Super Rugby. For the development of the game in Argentina and also the profile of rugby in South America, to be playing week in, week out against the best teams in the world, and obviously the Pumas testing themselves against the best four teams in the world internationally, that was a massive step for them.

"Under the Rugby Championship obviously, they were historically pulling players back form France or England or wherever they were playing their football. So from a high performance perspective, to have them back playing at home and under a HP program that was developing, was critfical for the growth of rugby and rugby itself.”

Club rugby was, and still is, entirely amateur in Argentina, meaning all players had to leave the country to play professionally. 

Prior to the Jaguares’ entry into Super Rugby, however, Pumas players were away from their clubs for extended stretches and were seeing that reflected in their under-sized new contracts.

When the Jaguares started up, a large number of Pumas players returned home and have stayed there; which has created some controversy in a Super Rugby context, given the Jaguares team is now basically a mirror image of the Test team.

Off the back of a semi-final appearance by Argentina in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, former Rugby Australia boss Bill Pulver said he thought the Jaguares could win Super Rugby in their first season in 2016.

But success took a while to come. 

Playing in African conferences, the Jaguares won four games and came 13th in 2016, and won seven games to finish 10th in 2017. They made their first playoffs in 2018.

"At the time I was on the record to temper those expectations,” Peters said.

"The reality was this is week-in, week-out really tough. It’s the toughest competition, possibly in world sport, certainly rugby union, because of the travel component and the quality of teams you’re playing against.

"You have got to remember the closest away game was Auckland. Think about that. 

The Jaguares have made it two-from-two in Australia. Photo: Getty Images"The Chiefs or Crusaders or Waratahs will go an hour or two away. The Jaguares’ closest away game was across timezones and over to Auckland, because it’s now quicker to get to Auclland from Argentina than it is to Johannesburg or Durban. They were up against it.”

Peters said the team struggled to adapt to the way they need to play in Super Rugby, as well.

“They saw it as one way, we’ll run the ball for our own try line and go the Argentinian way with flair and passion,” 

"They lacked a bit of structure and balance in those first couple of years. That was a learning curve. IT is no criticism but they had to adapt their style of play from all-out razzle dazzle.

"I used to say to them that the Highlanders won the Super Rugby title in 2015 and they were the team that kicked the most in the competition that year, and they scored the most tries and had the best defence. You don’t have to run from everywhere, bring some balance to the game.

"And that’s what they’ve done. They have a fantastic playing group and excellent coaches as well.”

Asked for his thoughts on criticism about the Jaguares’ place in the competition from ex-Wallaby Phil Kearns - based on them being a rebadged Test team - Peters side-stepped the question but said many Super Rugby teams have international-heavy teams,

"I don't want to enter into that - I just think they’ve done what SANZAAR asked them to do, which is come into the competition and be competitive and now they’re in the final,” Peters said.

"If you look at the Crusaders, they have 11 All Blacks don’t they? And there were 14 Pumas in last week’s Jaguares’ side. When I was with the Hurricanes we had 12 or 13 All Blacks in that squad, and the Waratahs from time to time have had a similar number of Wallabies.”

Quizzed as to whether Argentina has sufficient talent for a second team in future iterations of Super Rugby, Peters replied: "There’s significant economic challenge with that.”

"I shouldn’t really be commenting on SANZAAR’s expansion aspirations or otherwise, that’s a matter for someone else,” Peters said. 

"But knowing Agustin as the great visionary that he is, he will be thinking of every avenue to ensure that South America and Americans rugby is strong and growing, and particularly Argentinian rugby.”

There are varying schools of thought about whether the Jaguares’ long season together will help or hinder the Pumas’ World Cup chances, given they’re all the same players.

Some believe the Pumas may be worn out by the World Cup, but others say the resting and rotation done by the UAR has safe-guarded them, and that the Jaguares’ time in Super Rugby will make Argentina a dark horse.

Peters believes the latter.

"If they manage their squad, there’s about a month between the rugby chajmpinosjip and the World Cup,” he said.

"They have bought new dimensions to their game through Super Rugby, there’s no doubt about that. 

"And they have always been able to punch above their weight at World Cups. So if they manage the player workload demands, and they seem to be doing that well in Super Rugby, then they’ll certainly be one that people should keep their eye on.”