Pumas know score when it comes to targets
DISAPPOINTED as he was on Sunday evening after losing their World Cup semi-final Agustin Creevy, the captain of Argentina’s Pumas was already re-setting his sights on ensuring what he and his team-mates had seen as their realistic target for the tournament.
“We are very sad, very sad, but I think there shouldn’t be any reproach,” he said.
“We have to keep our heads up and think about Friday. We want to be in the top three in the world.”
Told that Heyneke Meyer, the coach of South Africa had, 24 hours earlier, colourfully described playing in the third place play-off as ‘like kissing your sister’ in bidding to explain his distaste for the prospect, Creevy had been bemused.
“I don’t know why he said that,” he responded. “I would rather be third than fourth.”
Winning the World Cup was probably beyond Argentina this time around, albeit they would doubtless have a very good crack at it had they managed to find a way past Australia’s Wallabies, which Daniel Hourcade, their head coach, rightly reckoned might well have happened had they managed, just once, to find their way through the opposing defence for a try.
In that context, then, it could conceivably be argued that there was a lack of ambition in that target of finishing in the top three.
However, while every team goes into every match trying to win, it is ridiculous to suggest that every team that qualifies to play in a competition should see itself as potential winners.
In reality four teams were entitled to go into this tournament believing they should win it, namely those that had won it previously.
That is not simply down to previous experience, since that would rule against any new winner of any competition which is, by definition, daft. However in this instance three of them had consistently been the top three teams in the world in the last decade, while the fourth were hosts and home advantage in all their key games had the potential to work in their favour.
Beyond that trio three more teams could have made cases for being capable of winning the competition if favoured by some good fortune: Threetime finalists France have the strongest domestic competition in Europe and perhaps the world; Ireland are Europe’s champions of the previous two years; and Wales have a squad that contains and has played in and/or along with players who have repeatedly won Grand Slams in the past decade or so.
For all that they finished above South Africa in this year’s Rugby Championship that in itself was a breakthrough for the Pumas and surely not quite enough to persuade them that they were capable of beating two of the traditional big three on successive weekends.
So, what was clear in Creevy’s summation is that internally, without a trace of defeatism, they had aimed at finishing among the top three at this World Cup, having identified that as genuinely achievable, so should they beat the Springboks they will be entitled to celebrate a job well done.
Meyer’s reaction was, albeit strangely expressed, similarly understandable because the Springboks have earned the right over the past 125 years or so, to expect to win Test matches and tournaments and, like New Zealand, they won this tournament the first time they entered.
However his disappointment and repeated dismissal of having to think about the third-place play-off as ‘loser talk’ reflects the very different pressure that comes with the territory of being entitled to expect to win competitions of this importance.
For the All Blacks, the Springboks and to a slightly lesser extent the Wallabies – taking into account rugby union’s status in that country where it is the fourth most popular winter football code – the only thing to celebrate is lifting the trophy.
England would probably have felt similarly had they reached the semifinals, but for any of Argentina, Ireland and Wales having a shot at a third-place finish would represent an achievement.
In those terms Scotland are among the few teams that should genuinely have had something to celebrate at this tournament because form and history meant reaching the knockout stages was in strategic terms, something that they, like Samoa, Italy, Tonga and, perhaps, Japan, were entitled to target as a significant achievement.
Once there, of course, they would be entitled to believe with the best collective performance of their careers, which they produced against Australia, they could perhaps produce a shock.
As with Argentina aiming to beat Australia for only the third time in the professional era and then either New Zealand for the first time ever or South Africa for the second time in 23 meetings, doing so on three successive weekends was beyond the wildest dream or anyone with a proper strategic grasp of what was achievable.
To say so does not represent a lack of ambition, it reflects an understanding, shared with the vast majority of, if not all knowledgeable people in Scottish rugby, of what the current squad should have been aiming for and were entitled to be satisfied if not necessarily delighted, at having achieved, just as the highly impressive Pumas will be if they win tomorrow night.
TOMORROW Susan Egelstaff
“It is ridiculous to suggest that every team that qualifies to play in a competition should see itself as potential winners
STANDING TALL: A dejected but proud Agustin Creevy heads down the Twickenham tunnel after the Pumas missed out on a World Cup final appearance