Argentina may have come up short against South Africa this weekend, but scrum-halves Martin Landajo and Tomas Cubelli both impressed. We analyse their attacking play, which caused the Springboks plenty of problems.

Moral victories in Test rugby don’t really exist. Whatever happens over the preceding 80 minutes, defeat always feels grim. Even if thermometers were hovering above 30 degrees in Salta on Saturday, each of Argentina’s players would have been instilled with a cold emptiness when the final whistle sounded.

As South Africa clawed back from 28-16 down for a 33-31 triumph, they consigned the Pumas to a 14th consecutive game without success in The Rugby Championship. There was one draw with the Springboks in the augural tournament two years ago, but it is an overall record that remains bleak.

Writing off Argentina is mightily misguided, though. This weekend was a lesson to all who believe the current crop is reclining in the slipstream of 2007’s golden generation. Sure, some of the old guard are still around. Juan Martin Hernandez produced his mythical best and evergreen Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe was typically combative. The front-row enjoyed a spectacularly destructive afternoon as well, spearheaded by captain Agustin Creevy.

Agustin Pichot

Little general: Agustin Pichot celebrates beating Ireland at the 2007 World Cup

But it was two scrum-halves, first Martin Landajo and then replacement Tomas Cubelli, who personified the hosts’ encouraging ambition and energy. Forever directing – whether around breakdowns or at the centre of impassioned huddles – supreme Puma Agustin Pichot became his team’s heartbeat over a 71-cap career. It’s a humungous (yet well-earned) compliment to say Landajo and Cubelli did him proud. First of all, watch how Argentina opened up a 3-0 advantage.

Pause the clip at 0:22.

Landajo’s tracking lines and sharp service are crucial here, especially with his pack on the front foot. Early, concise organisation means his forward runners are in place early with enough support to create quick ruck-ball.

Martin LandajoFrom this first phase, Fernandez Lobbe and Marcos Ayerza (circled in light blue) are sent towards the gainline. Notice both guard Duane Vermeulen and bodyguard Lood de Jager (dark green circles) have their gaze fixed on the scrum-half with their shoulders facing in.  Early on, they are alert to any fringe-threats and in text-book body-positions to counter a running threat from the base. Bare this in mind for later.

Martin LandajoLobbe takes Landajo’s pass and carries, while Ayerza latches on. This helps punch a hole before the prop wrestles defender Bismarck du Plessis off his feet – and therefore out of the game. However, the Springbok hooker dives in desperately to attempt the turnover. Landajo (circled in white) is fast to the ball and tries to pull it clear, an action that accentuates du Plessis’ clumsy offence. Referee Steve Walsh holds his arm out immediately.

Martin LandajoAfter sucking the opposition narrow – there are at least six would-be tacklers within 10 metres of the ruck – Landajo now heads wider, bypassing Pablo Matera in the primary wave and hitting his fly-half Nicolas Sanchez instead. The pass is not quite firm enough, and the resultant grubber comes to nothing, but South Africa have still been stretched by the scrum-half’s varied attacking approach.

That trend continued until Landajo left the fray at end of the first period. And Cubelli ensured there was no let up. In fact, the replacement’s try six minutes into the second half was a continuation of his teammate’s work.

Pause the clip at 3:25.

Rather than quietly acclimatise to the pace of the encounter, Cubelli added verve to the Argentina effort. Here, six phases into an abrasive movement, he manoeuvres his pack as Landajo did and sends a long pass into midfield from the left-hand touchline. Suddenly, the Pumas have a 15-metre blind-side and can attack on two fronts.

Tomas CubelliPerhaps fatigued, perhaps betraying inexperience in just his fourth Test, de Jager (dark green circle) expects the Pumas to come around the corner and over-chases towards the open-side of the ruck. For less than a second, South Africa do not have a guard in place on the blind-side.

As you can see from the screenshot, his shoulders are pointing in precisely the opposite direction to Cubelli’s opportunistic gaze – a stark contrast to the coiled body position at the ruck in the first three minutes when Landajo was on. Unfortunately, an exceptionally aware scrum-half punishes the concentration lapse.

Tomas CubelliClearly, du Plessis has called de Jager across but must turn his hips in as Cubelli embarks on his rapid outside arc. Paused here, we see how dangerous the situation has become. de Jager is struggling to recover, du Plessis’s weight is on his heels and Cubelli has a decent-sized gap to aim for.

Tom Cubelli

Both Springboks do manage to scramble back. Even so, they can only meet Cubelli with relatively weak arms rather than planting their feet and dropping a shoulder. Cubelli does show impressive strength to get through and stay upright (past Willie Le Roux), but the chance is created primarily by speed of thought – and South Africa’s consequent indecision.

Lastly, we come to Argentina’s third and final try. Another blockbuster finish, this time from full-back Joaquin Tuculet, Cubelli is a vital figure once more.

Pause the clip at 4:10.

Prior to Tuculet’s wonderful tiptoe down the touchline, before even the excellent handling in midfield, comes Cubelli’s involvement. Again it is instinctive, again it is muscular.

Tomas CubelliAs mentioned previously, the Argentina scrum was magnificent and simply battered the Springboks. On this occasion though, the ball spurts out as Leonardo Senatore cannot control. Cubelli knows the importance of retaining possession, and pounces. Sluggish earlier in the piece, South Africa are behind now and fiercely keen for that to change. Ruan Pienaar, Francois Louw and Vermeulen (all circled in dark green) tear in for a turnover.

Tomas Cubelli

 Despite very close attention, Cubelli fights to his feet, pumps the legs and awaits support.

Tomas CubelliFor once, the Pumas back-row is held up and Cubelli remains on his own. As Vermeulen (circled) charges in, it seems likely Argentina will surrender the ball. But then Cubelli manages to release an offload to half-back partner Sanchez. It isn’t tidy, but it is hugely effective. Two of South Africa’s back-row and scrum-half Pienaar are all tied in. Losing those three defenders on the first phase following a set-piece makes life extremely difficult, and the Pumas take advantage out wide.

Identifying the need to transfer the ball away from contact as fast as possible, this amounts to another fantastic intervention from an Argentina number nine. Scrum-half play in attack is all about manipulating defences. It was Pichot’s trademark. Both Cubelli and Landajo proved themselves well capable of that as well, and the Pumas should have sealed a victory on the back of it.

That said, Argentina are heading in the right direction. A maiden Rugby Championship win is not far away – especially if two exceptional scrum-halves have their way.

 Don’t miss All Blacks scrum-half Aaron Smith’s thoughts on The Rugby Championship in the September 2014 issue of Rugby World – on sale now!