The teams at the very top of the rugby world are an incredibly tight group that has not been breached much in recent years.
Currently, New Zealand, England, Ireland and Australia make up the top four right now and there is a massive gap between the chasing pack.
Wales have stagnated with an ageing squad, France continue to struggle with consistency and South Africa have capitulated in recent months so much so that they look like a shell of their former selves.
One side that have threatened to become a real heavyweight of rugby is Argentina. The Southern Hemisphere outfit have been on the up for some years and they have closed the gap on the top sides admirably.
The below image is from October 2016 following their fine Rugby World Cup campaign:
Their rise has been one that is down to a number of factors.
First is their initiation in the competition formerly known as the Tri-Nations. Argentina have been able to play alongside New Zealand, Australia and South Africa in a brutal tournament of hard hitting and fast moving rugby.
There were initially talks of the Pumas being included in the Six Nations but this didn’t happen and they have benefited massively.
The Northern Hemisphere is plagued by an inability to employ real running rugby. Instead there is a far greater emphasis on the forwards and kicking to the other team to death due to the weather conditions that do not allow for running rugby.
In the Southern Hemisphere though, the conditions are warm and dry; pitches allow quick rugby with ball in hand.
While they may get hammered quite often against the big three teams, they are learning form the best and it is hugely beneficial for Los Pumas. On the northern side, Italy find themselves beaten often but they are not improving because the style of rugby does not change and evolve and allow them to be better rugby players in themselves; they are just stuck playing an outdated game that stops their improvement.
Secondly, there has been a decline in the levels the rest of the world are playing at. New Zealand are of course the undisputed kings, but the rest of the teams have been changing positions often with one side usually unable to stay as the best of the rest.
This means the skill gap between Argentina and the rest has closed, allowing them to become more of a force in world rugby. In the 2015 World Cup, the Pumas reached the semi-final as they were beaten by Australia. Storming to the last-four was exceptional enough even without their incredible win over Ireland:
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The 43-20 victory was superb and displayed running rugby at its best. The Pumas tore the Irish apart and made sure that the semi-final of the World Cup would be an affair without any northern teams.
This win, which preceded a 29-15 loss to Australia saw the last team from the Six Nations beaten in emphatic fashion, once again emphasising the souths dominance over the north in rugby.
Unfortunately for Argentina they are likely to always struggle to become a true superpower of the rugby world though, even with results like that. Football is their first love and with the players and history they have it’s not surprising.
Their hammering of Ireland did not translate into a consistent push though. This becomes apparent when they were beaten 27-14 by an England team that played for over 75 minutes with 14-men late last year. Argentina should have pressed home their man advantage and their inability to do so was telling of how far they still have to come.
Since the 2015 World Cup, Argentina have fallen from fourth to ninth:
They will continue to improve and that is vital for rugby itself as for too long it has been the big three Southern Hemisphere teams and England, Wales, Ireland and France at the top. Scotland have improved massively recently and they are proof that the gap between the very best and the rest isn’t totally insurmountable.
If Argentina are to ever seriously break into the elite echelon then they have to take advantage of the momentum they have been generating in recent years.