Coach Hourcade sets Pumas on good World Cup tack

By Reuters

Published: 15:22 GMT, 21 April 2015 | Updated: 15:22 GMT, 21 April 2015

By Rex Gowar

BUENOS AIRES, April 21 (Reuters) - Argentina begin their World Cup countdown with a test match at home to the United States in Salta on Saturday knowing the Pumas will get their best ever preparation for rugby's showcase tournament.

The picture was not so good, however, when coach Daniel Hourcade took charge 16 months ago of a team with internal divisions which had been highlighted in a crushing 73-13 defeat by South Africa in Johannesburg three months earlier.

"In November 2013, I found a team full of internal problems, divided, there wasn't a good atmosphere from the human point of view and that was certainly reflected on the pitch," Hourcade told Reuters.

"What was bad was the group, not that there was better or worse people, so I set about building a team," he said in an interview from his home town of Tucuman in Argentina's northwest.

"There were two clear objectives, to widen the player base and that meant giving many more minutes to those in Argentina who have the capacity but not the experience, and improve our attacking game," said Hourcade, who was promoted from coach of Argentina's highly rated second string Pampas XV.

It took Argentina three years to get their first Rugby Championship win, 21-17 over Australia in Salta in October 2014, 11 months after Hourcade had taken charge, and a month later they upset France on tour in Paris.

A key factor in widening the base of players available to the Pumas was the inclusion in the southern hemisphere's Super Rugby of an Argentine franchise, making it attractive to players to stay at home rather than accept lucrative offers from European clubs.

"We're going to get to the World Cup in very good shape because the base is already there. We're in a pool that's not at all easy but it is less complicated than others," said Hourcade, whose side open against holders New Zealand at Wembley on Sept. 20.

"Namibia is below the level of the other teams, Georgia have improved a lot and Tonga are extremely tough," he said.

"Tonga have worked very hard for this World Cup, and we know that six players resigned from their contracts with New Zealand to go and play in Tonga and go to the World Cup, we're expecting a very powerful team."

Argentina have become accustomed to a place in the last eight at least since their third-place finish at the 2007 World Cup in France.

UNPRECEDENTED BUILD-UP

After two tests against the U.S., Argentina meet Fiji, Uruguay and French Barbarians in the June window before setting up a training camp in Australia from where they will go to New Zealand for their opening match in a reduced Rugby Championship in Christchurch on July 17.

Meeting each of the three southern hemisphere giants -- also Australia at home on July 25, South Africa away on Aug. 9 -- is unprecedented for the Pumas in a World Cup season.

The more veteran European exiles like Toulon back row forward Juan Fernandez Lobbe and Saracens centre Marcelo Bosch have accepted that the World Cup may be their Pumas swansong if picked.

The pair have not joined Pumas captain Agustin Creevy - who said in Tuesday's Ole sports daily "our objective is to be world champions" -- and other exiles in signing contracts this month with the Argentine Rugby Union (UAR) from next year with a view to being part of the Super Rugby franchise.

Hourcade said Argentina had been giving their Rugby Championship opponents too many advantages picking a team full of players who played a different season in Europe and a different game.

"We had very little time to change their chip, so during the course of a match tiredness led to them revert to habit," he said.

"What we were lacking fundamentally was what we'll have from 2016, the same competition as them, not giving sporting advantages, and the same calendar, the same rest periods."

Hourcade said the PLADAR, a high performance programme for professionals from which Argentina will pick their Super Rugby team and the Pumas, "is the first time the UAR has set up something to help our players." (Editing by Justin Palmer)

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