It looks like it happened ages ago but it has been only four years since Jaguares joined Super Rugby. The Argentine franchise quickly gained confidence in the competition and will now play an unprecedented final against New Zealand’s Crusaders, three season on from making the quarterfinals.
The 2019 season, under new head coach Gonzalo Quesada and his staff, has been almost perfect. That won’t change, whatever happens on Saturday, but if Jaguares can win the Championship — a difficult but not impossible mission for this strong group of players — it will be a massive milestone not just in the history of Argentine rugby but in the timeline of sport in Argentina. And even if they fall against the double reigning champions, no one would rebuke a team that have put up a brave fight against the powerhouses of the Southern Hemisphere.
So how was it that Jaguares, a team built almost from nothing, managed to reach the Super Rugby final?
It is not enough to trace their success back to January, when the preseason began in stifling heat at Newman, the club’s training ground in the city of Benavidez on the outer edge of the great urban mass of Buenos Aires. Nor is it enough to trace it back to to August last year, when the Argentine Rugby Union (UAR) decided that Quesada would take over from Mario Ledesma, who was leaving to coach the Pumas, Argentina’s national team.
No, the Jaguares fairy tale started a decade ago, with the birth of Pampas XV in 2009. Under the influence of Agustin Pichot, who had just put an end to his playing career, Argentine Rugby Union (UAR) officials launched a long-term project. Playing the Rugby Championship was just a dream at the time, and Super Rugby was even further away.
But their minds were set in the future. Daniel Hourcade returned to Argentina after coaching in Europe and took over Pampas XV, a team created to play South Africa’s Vodacom Cup in 2010. As always, the land of the Springboks played a key role in the growth of the Argentine game.
Players now starring for Jaguares such as Agustin Creevy, Martin Landajo, Tomas Cubelli, Joaquin Tuculet, Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias and many others came through the ranks of that team in that tournament. The coach from Tucuman, an agricultural province in the north west of the country, also played a key role by transforming Jaguares’ playing style, making individual skills a priority and giving the team an offensive-minded approach that revolutionised Argentine rugby.
Those players and others that had been the backbone of Pampas XV nurtured the national team through a difficult spell under Santiago Phelan, who took over after Argentina finished third in the 2007 Rugby World Cup and struggled with the loss of key players Pichot, Gonzalo Longo, Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe and Ignacio Corleto to retirement.
Hourcade left Pampas XV to take over the Pumas in 2013, a year after Argentina were invited to join the Rugby Championship, and all the work that had started in 2009 was starting to pay off.
The first win in the tournament came in 2014 against Australia, followed by another against South Africa in 2015. Next came an outstanding Rugby World Cup performance in 2015, with the Pumas finishing in fourth place after a commanding victory against Ireland in Cardiff provided the iconic moment of their campaign.
The package of top-level competition would be complete in 2016 with Super Rugby. That´s when Jaguares were born. Raul Perez, who had been Hourcade´s closest assistant coach, would step up to take on the huge task of head coach in a world that was unfamiliar to him.
The path was not easy. In fact, it was a lot harder than anyone could have imagined. A lot more defeats than wins and long tours without getting positive results led to long faces within the team, and, under heavy criticism, the Pumas were also affected.
But every single experience has been a lesson learned.
By the end of the 2017 season, Perez left Jaguares and Mario Ledesma arrived. The former national team hooker quickly managed to change the mentality of a beaten squad. “Work” and “madness” were his token words, the message caught and things started to turn around. His players earned more confidence, the team began to grow and for the first time they advanced to the quarterfinals of Super Rugby. They had an historic tour of Oceana, with victories against Blues, Chiefs, Rebels and the Brumbies.
That campaign propelled Ledesma to the Pumas coaching seat, and in to fill the vacant Jaguares post came another renowned former national player: Quesada. After many years in Europe, first as a player and then as a coach, he made the difficult decision to come back. And if Ledesma had done the confidence work Jaguares so much needed, Quesada added several strengths to their game to make positive results become the rule.
Competition in different positions became more important, with more starters and replacements at an equal level, and several young players such as Mayco Vivas, Lucas Paulos and Santiago Carreras quickly achieving the upgrade from Pumitas (Argentina under-20 internationals) to Jaguares.
Joaquin Diaz Bonilla and Domingo Miotti became interesting options for the fly-half jersey after the departure of Nicolas Sanchez, and the team found the right system so as not to miss him so deeply, led by players such as Agustin Creevy, Pablo Matera and Jeronimo de la Fuente.
As for set-pieces, the scrum, historically Argentina’s strongest asset and lately one of their main weaknesses, improved thanks to Andres Bordoy, while the lineout made a quantum leap in quality.
In all, the sum of their parts made Jaguares a lot better. Creevy, Matera and De la Fuente may be some of the names that stand out, but everyone, coaches and players without exception, have left their mark. Jaguares wouldn´t be where they are today if it had not been for every single one of them throughout this ten-year process.
They still have one chapter ahead of them, probably the most difficult and most important one to write. But whatever the result against Crusaders, the message they wanted to send has been heard by Argentine and world rugby. The truth is, come Saturday, they are ready to show once more that anything can happen.