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Pumas ready for Classic defence

Good to be back: Rodolfo Ventura, the Classic Pumas manager, has a long relationship with the island’s annual rugby festival. He first played in the tournament in 1995 and helped Argentina win their maiden title in 1999 (Photograph by Stephen Wright)

Rodolfo Ventura says the Classic Pumas will be no less competitive at the World Rugby Classic despite missing several key performers from last year’s title-winning squad.

The Argentina manager had hoped to maintain the nucleus of the team that claimed a third title by defeating the Classic All Blacks in the 2017 final.

However, nine of those battle-hardened bodies were unable to make the trip because of work and family commitments, forcing Ventura and his staff to draft in a number of debutants.

Among the new faces is full back Gonzalo Gutiérrez Taboada, who won one cap against Chile in 2016, while usual suspects Antonio Ahualli, Federico Luis Castilla, Federico Martín Aramburu and Gonzalo Tiesi ensure there is still some continuity from last year.

“We would have liked to bring the same team — they were the champions — but work problems, family problems, means some of those cannot repeat,” Ventura said. “There have been lots of last-minute changes, but I think the players we have replaced them with will make a good team.”

Should Argentina beat USA Classic Eagles in their opener at North Field on Monday night, Ventura believes his side will quickly gel and bond into an outfit capable of defending their title.

“We have a hard game against the US and if we have the luck to win there, I think the second game [we] will be stronger,” he said. “As I always say, the team evolves and gets stronger as time and matches pass on.”

Ventura, who made 13 appearances for Argentina, including a tour to England in 1978, has enjoyed a long relationship with the Classic as both player and manager.

His first experience of the rugby festival was “many years and many kilos ago” as a prop in 1995. Four years later, and, presumably, slightly fewer kilograms lighter, Ventura helped Argentina to win their maiden title.

The competition was still considered more of a “golden oldies” exhibition, back then, the free-flowing fare on the pitch at a premium compared with the amount of free-flowing beer being guzzled off it.

And while carousing and revelry are still at the core of the Classic’s ethos, Ventura has witnessed the standard of rugby improve significantly since those bygone days.

“It was completely different in ’95,” he said. “The average age was 40, 42, while now you find the average is about 35.

“Thirty years ago, it was more fun than play, but now it’s evolved and improved at lot. It’s a better show for the people attending.”

Among the teams looking to dethrone Argentina will be an Irish side returning to the Classic after an absence of more than 25 years.

The Irish, who have replaced New Zealand for the Classic’s 30th anniversary, as one of the five teams from the inaugural event in 1988, boast the likes of hooker Shane Byrne, and flankers Andy Ward and Trevor Brennan.

Also joining the Ireland Rugby Legends at the event, which starts tomorrow, will be Rugby Canada, France Classic Rugby, Classic Springboks, Rugby Italian Classic XV and Classic Lions.

Ventura has played down Ireland’s chances, however, believing it will be difficult for them to mount an immediate title challenge.

“They will need a couple of matches to get their rhythm,” he said. “You have to learn to play here, under the floodlights, and the style is different. The scrums are not as competitive and that gives the defence less time. It’s quicker in the advantage line. Plus, the 30-minute periods are shorter than what you’re used to. I think Ireland will suffer that ... maybe I’m wrong.”

The opening game will pit Classic France Rugby against Ireland at 2.15pm, with Classic Springboks facing Rugby Canada at 3.45pm.

For the full tournament schedule and ticket information, go to www.worldrugby.bm. The World Rugby Classic will be offering a free shuttle service, provided by Titan Express, to all patrons of the event next week. Shuttles will depart from the Flagpole on Front Street at 5.30pm, 6pm and 6.30pm