Port Elizabeth - Los Pumas embark on their sixth Rugby Championship campaign when they tackle the Springboks in Port Elizabeth on Saturday.
Since marking their debut in 2012 in the southern hemisphere’s premier competition, the South Americans have played 27 matches, won three, drawn one and lost 23 times.
Their record in the four-team tournament is hardly enviable, but there is a quiet optimism within the Argentina camp as they prepare to resume rivalries with the Springboks. The Pumas are a proud group of players and refuse to believe the Jaguares’ poor run in Super Rugby this season - they lost eight games and failed to qualify for the playoffs - will inform Argentina’s Rugby Championship destiny.
In 2015, Argentina rewrote the record books by beating South Africa away from home for the first time courtesy of a convincing 37-25 victory in Durban. The Pumas’ cocktail of pace and purpose was too hot for the Springboks to handle. The visitors ran in four tries, with Juan Imhoff registering a hat-trick. It was a historic day for the Pumas as it was their first win against South Africa in 20 attempts.
“Beating the Springboks in South Africa for the first time was really important and mentally it was a turning point for us,” captain Agustin Creevy revealed to Sport24 in an exclusive interview. “South Africa is a great team and we always learn a lot when we play against them,” he added in his humble manner.
Heading into the 25th Test match between the two countries at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, the Pumas enjoy the bragging rights having defeated the Springboks in the sides’ most recent encounter in 2016, staged in Salta. However, Creevy refused to be lulled into a false sense of security, with the Springboks’ upsurge in performance apparent having whitewashed France over the June Test series.
“We won against South Africa last season because our mentality was excellent. We stayed calm and didn’t do anything crazy but, for me, the Springboks remain one of the top three sides in the world.”
While the Springboks have been installed as favourites in their Rugby Championship pipe-opener against the Pumas, South African assistant coach Franco Smith predicted a “complete onslaught” from Argentina. The Pumas have failed to finish any higher than third in five seasons of the Rugby Championship. However, they are abrasive at the breakdown and stellar exponents of the scrum.
Creevy, a flanker-turned-hooker, had a real glint in his eye when he spoke about Argentina’s famed Bajada scrum, which has tormented a plethora of opponents and is the bedrock of the Pumas’ game.
“The scrum is in our blood, and the secret of our success is to get low, all breathe together and keep pushing as a pack. Sometimes it feels like my legs are going to explode,” Creevy said with a chuckle.
However, his role in the front row is no laughing matter because the force is concentrated through the hooker. Creevy made his international debut as a flanker in 2005, but converted to hooker in 2010. The 32-year-old has gone on to play 62 Tests and has captained his country since 2014.
“It was really difficult (to transition to hooker) because I needed to change my body type and style of training. At first, my scrummaging and throwing-in was terrible, but step by step I saw that I could make the change... As a hooker, of course you have to be strong in the set-pieces because those are your primary roles, but around the field I like mobile hookers that can run with the ball like flankers.”
South Africa’s starting hooker for Saturday, Malcolm Marx, is cut from the same cloth as Creevy in terms of skillset. The matchup between the two protagonists will be worth the admission fee alone.
Marx is regarded as the heir apparent to Bismarck du Plessis’s throne, while Creevy’s effective ball handling skills and deft offloading ability saw him dubbed ‘Sonny Bill’ Creevy by some Montpellier supporters during his three-year spell at a club which has a hatful of South Africans on its books.
“I really appreciate that nickname from the fans and I love to keep the ball alive,” he said with smile, “but I don’t think I can accept that nickname because Sonny Bill Williams is the best in the world.”
The Springboks might not be tackling Williams and the All Blacks on Saturday but, in Creevy and his merry band of men, they face a difficult assignment as Los Pumas aim to infuse style and substance.
Kick-off is at 17:05 and Frenchman Romain Poite will be the man in the middle.
15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Raymond Rhule, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Uzair Cassiem, 7 Jaco Kriel, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth (captain), 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Beast Mtawarira
Substitutes: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Steven Kitshoff, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Pieter-Steph Du Toit, 20 Jean-Luc du Preez, 21 Francois Hougaard, 22 Curwin Bosch, 23 Damian de Allende
15 Joaquin Tuculet, 14 Ramiro Moyano, 13 Matias Orlando, 12 Jeronimo de la Fuente, 11 Emiliano Boffelli; 10 Nicolas Sanchez, 9 Martin Landajo, 8 Leonardo Senatore, 7 Tomas Lezana, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Tomas Lavanini, 4 Guido Petti, 3 Enrique Pieretto, 2 Agustin Creevy (captain), 1 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro
Substitutes: 16 Julian Montoya, 17 Lucas Noguera, 18 Ramiro Herrera, 19 Marcos Kremer, 20 Javier Ortega Desio, 21 Tomas Cubelli, 22 Juan Martin Hernandez, 23 Matias Moroni