Fresh off a comprehensive win for a strong Scottish “A” side over Chile, i was time for a stronger test for the Scots as they faced Argentina. The Pumas were playing their first home game since August 2019, and it took just 4 minutes for them to open the scoring via a Nicolás Sánchez penalty. After a couple of poor years under Mario Ledesma, a big performance for Argentina in their first match under Michael Cheika was a must, and they were certainly the dominant team early on, but the Scots held firm and their fist extended spell of possession ended with a Blair Kinghorn penalty to level the scores after 15 minutes. Sánchez soon put the Pumas back ahead with another penalty, but his match was ended early with an injury after 20 minutes and he was replaced by Santiago Carreras. The fly half’s loss was soon felt as Emiliano Boffelli missed his first kick at goal, while Kinghorn was more accurate with his own attempt moments later. However the Pumas were looking dangerous with ball in hand and as they stretched the Scottish defence missing its lynchpin Chris Harris (one of a number of key players given the summer off), Jerónimo de la Fuente managed to force his way over for the first try after 30 minutes. And just minutes later, a break from Juan Cruz Mallia saw Santiago Cordero brought down just short of the line, but Carreras was there in support to dive over in the corner. Matías Orlando nearly made it 3 just moments later as a Scottish attack broke down and the ball went to ground before being hacked on by the transitioning Pumas, but Duhan van der Merwe just got back to kick the ball dead, with Matt Fagerson winning a crucial turnover penalty as Argentina attacked off the resulting scrum, with the half ending 18-6.
The Scots may have been without some big names after choosing to rest Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg and Chris Harris, but they got the first chance of the second half with a 5m lineout, and though Petti got up to steal the ball, it was not taken cleanly off the top and Duhan van der Merwe just failed to cleanly ground the ball as he and Carreras both dived for the loose ball. But they kept the pressure on and Mark Bennett managed to beat Cordero to the outside to go over in the corner for a crucial try in his first Test start for 6 years. The Scottish dominance continued, aided by Argentinian indiscipline, and the Scots were soon over for another try, Kinghorn arcing a run to the corner flag and playing a switch to Rory Hutchinson, who crashed over the line, with Kinghorn kicking the extras to level the scores. This seemed to spark the Pumas into life, and after Boffelli won the restart and Orlando got the ball up to the try line, Gonzalo Bertranou—originally intended to spend the summer with the development squad in Europe, then later called into the senior squad and intended to be on the bench until a late injury to Tomás Cubelli promoted him to the starting spot—sniped over for an immediate response. As the game entered the final quarter, Sam Johnson thought that he had scored out wide, only for Nic Berry to adjudge Kinghorn’s fizzed pass to him to have gone forward. With 10 minutes remaining, Boffelli kicked a penalty to make it a 2-score game and the defence held firm as the clock ticked down to secure a 26-18 victory.
Belief is back
It’s always amazing just how quickly a side can turn around. In the final days of Mario Ledesma, this was a side that didn’t look like they wanted to be playing. They were aimless and lacking discipline. Now they look like they first did under him: attacking through their exciting back line and bringing in the forwards to keep that expansive play. Oh and Marcos Kremer didn’t do anything stupid.
While a change in coach has probably helped freshen things up, I also wouldn’t be surprised if part of it is something as simple as getting to play in front of a home crowd. The home fans will never be accused of not being passionate, and that level of support is always going to help propel a team on. But more than that, to play away from loved ones for so long in continuous COVID bubbles would sap the will of any human.
They still have some work to do on things like defence and discipline, and they desperately need to find a more reliable goal kicker than Boffelli for when Sánchez is off the pitch, but after a couple of disappointing seasons, this is a timely and necessary improvement.
I can’t help feel that Scotland got their tactics very wrong in this game. In and around the Argentina 22, they clearly showed that they were dangerous in attack and able to break the Pumas defence down. However, they did not seem to want to play attacking rugby between the halfway line and the Pumas 22, choosing instead to just kick away all possession.
Admittedly not all kicking is bad kicking, but in this case, I think it was, as they relied on the altitude to kick long and enter a territory game with the Pumas (which saw them kicked back into their own redzone), rather than putting up contestable box kicks and bombs. These attacking kicks would have put a lot more pressure on a Pumas back 3 who had an easy day, and would have also put more uncertainty into the defensive line as to what Scotland were going to do, which would have then allowed them to bring players like the anonymous van der Merwe into the game much more.
As much as Argentina looked better than recent Tests windows, they still looked very beatable, despite the quality of players missing for the Scots. Scotland just need to play much smarter rugby next week.