Argentina legend Marcos Ayerza hopes Europe will once again become a breeding ground for top Pumas following the demise of the Jaguares.
Although the future of last year’s Super Rugby finalists has yet to be officially decided, their player exodus is in full swing with centre Matías Orlando last week joining Newcastle Falcons, following Matias Alemanno’s departure to Gloucester last week.
Fellow second row Guido Petti (Bordeaux), flanker Marcos Kremer (Stade Francais) and centre Jeronimo de la Fuente (Perpignan) had already headed to Europe while promising young winger Facundo Cordero, 21, is settling in at Exeter.
Former prop Ayerza, who spent 11 years at Leicester before returning to Buenos Aires three years ago, is devastated by the sudden turn of events which, in the wake of Covid-19, have undermined decades of development work.
Speaking from his nation’s capital, 66-cap Ayerza told The Rugby Paper: “It’s been the longest housebound lockdown in the world here – 118 days – and it’s really tough.
“It’s incredible what is happening with the Jaguares and after all the work Argentina put into getting into Super Rugby, Covid-19 was the shot that killed it. It’s a big worry now to see how Argentina rugby will recover from this and how we will re-plan.
“The main problem is that geographically we are far away from all the top tier nations and the local market has never been strong enough to create our own professional league.
“We are always in a trapped situation so while Super Rugby demanded a lot of effort and finance from the players and union, it was going well and we reached last year’s final.
“That was significant and a big step forward, but to try and develop a whole rugby nation from one team was tough and now that has gone, we have to reshuffle our whole structure again to see how we can develop our young players coming through.
“Argentina rugby at the moment has a big question mark against it and unsolved issues which see a lot of our players starting to sign contracts in Europe again. Over the last two or three years that had stopped, but guys will once more go overseas.”
While a few lucky Pumas are being accommodated in top European leagues, salary cap cuts in England and France mean opportunities are limited.
Among options under consideration for the Jaguares are for them to continue as an entity playing in either South Africa’s Currie Cup, a beefed-up Super Liga Americana de Rugby competition or North America’s fledgling Major League Rugby.
However, Ayerza, a member of the Pumas sides who reached World Cup semi-finals in 2007 and 2015, believes Europe still offers the best solution.
He explained: “It is a big blow not to have a team in Super Rugby, but I was part of the Argentina team which had a good base of players in Europe and I believe the level of professionalism there prepared our players very well for the highest level.
“Facundo Cordero going to a club like Exeter is fascinating for Argentina because for the development of a young player he’s in the right place.
“Due to Covid-19, falling salary caps are creating some stress on the number of players per club, which is going to challenge European teams in receiving players from Argentina, but I believe we can benefit from having more talent there.
“Hopefully, Argentina will look to Europe again as a partner to develop young talent because that would be very positive, and if we can develop the right playing structures in Argentina and South America, that would be positive as well.”
Ayerza, who now runs coaching clinics and is involved at his old club, Newman, would also welcome an expansion of the Rugby Championship. He added: “The Rugby Championship can hopefully remain and I would like to see Japan and one of the Pacific Islands joining as well. It is up to World Rugby to decide this, but it would be a positive step.
“I remember playing for Argentina when we only played six games a year – three in June and three in November. Now we play 12 games and we need to be competing against the top teams regularly – that is what brings improvement.”
Meanwhile, Ayerza is saddened by the decline of Leicester and hopes new head coach Steve Borth-wick will spark a revival.
Recently voted the club’s best ever overseas players by Tigers fans, Ayerza said: “I put my heart and soul into Tigers so of course I am concerned with how we have lost track over the last two or three seasons from the excellence we achieved.
“Tigers are still regarded as one of the biggest clubs in Europe so to go from making 12 consecutive Premiership finals to the bottom is incredible. There have now been significant changes to the coaching staff, and some big signings, so I hope Steve Borthwick will do well.
“The most important thing is the academy. Leicester have been winning the academy league so you develop young talent and pursue excellence through good coaching, that’s how Leicester will win again.”
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