Pumas happy to be home after nearly 3 years away

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Argentina's absence from home has made its fans only fonder of their Pumas.

The Pumas haven't played at home since August 2019, a month before the Rugby World Cup in Japan. It will have been 1,056 days since that game when they reappear at home on Saturday for the first of three tests against Scotland.

From the time they arrived in Jujuy last weekend for the series that moves on to Salta and Santiago del Estero, the Argentines have been feted by supporters.

“I was lucky enough to play here, in Jujuy, against Georgia (in 2017), and the reception is always incredible,” hooker Agustin Creevy said. "Let's hope it stays that way for the rest of the tour.

"Coming home is always amazing. The intention is to share (with the fans) what could not be experienced in recent years. It is giving something back to them, sharing what the shirt is and knowing that they are also part of this. They are part of the Pumas. We are all part of the Pumas.”

Creevy is also enjoying a reunion, of sorts. The 37-year-old former captain is back in the side — in the reserves — for the first time since that 2019 World Cup. Reserve prop Mayco Vivas and starting center Matias Orlando have their first caps since December 2020.

Their returns can be credited to form — Creevy, for instance, scored 18 tries for London Irish this season — and new coach Michael Cheika, the former Wallabies mentor who took over in March.

Cheika is assisted by former Pumas Felipe Contepomi, Juan Fernandez Lobbe and Andres Bordoy, and David Kidwell, the former New Zealand rugby league player and coach. Kidwell is in charge of defense, one of the Pumas' weak points last year.

Argentina won only three of 12 tests in 2021, and lost all six in the Rugby Championship. The grind of playing far from home, moving in bubbles from country to country and living under restrictions and out of bags, took a toll, and Mario Ledesma resigned as coach in February.

Cheika's first Pumas lineup hasn't veered far from Ledesma's teams — there's eight players with 50-plus caps and three more with 40-plus caps — but he has picked on form.

The team features Argentina's first Super Rugby winner in Crusaders flanker Pablo Matera; one European Cup winner in La Rochelle's Joel Sclavi, who could make his Pumas debut off the bench; two English Premiership winners in Julian Montoya and Matias Moroni; and a European Challenge Cup winner in Lyon prop Francisco Gomez Kodela.

Benjamín Urdapilleta, also back for the first time since the 2019 World Cup, might have started at flyhalf had he not injured his right leg and come off in the French Top 14 final that his Castres side lost last week. Instead, the backup to flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez is Gloucester outside back Santiago Carreras and Toulouse wing Juan Cruz Mallia is a makeshift fullback.

“The focus is on concentration, among other things, not only for Saturday, but for the long term,” Cheika said. "It was not easy to change the pace and intensity. We are going to try to do what is necessary to be ready for Saturday, because it is important, but we have two plans: One, to win on Saturday, and another to reach the best form in the World Cup (in 14 months). We are building by layers.”

Scotland left at home to rest or recuperate regular captain Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell, Chris Harris — all British Lions backs — and front-rowers Fraser Brown, Stuart McInally and WP Nel. As well, Josh Bayliss, Ben Vellacott, Adam Hastings and Huw Jones were injured.

The team regressed in the Six Nations and has a familiar look.

There's the same tight five which faced Ireland in the last round in March, including new skipper Grant Gilchrist. Flanker Luke Crosbie, who captained Scotland A to a non-cap win against Chile last Saturday in Santiago, makes his first start ahead of Rory Darge.

Ali Price and Blair Kinghorn head a backline including Duhan van der Merwe, back from suspension, Mark Bennett in his first start since 2016, and Rory Hutchinson, playing his first test since 2020.

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Lineups:

Argentina: Juan Cruz Mallia, Santiago Cordero, Matias Orlando, Jeronimo de la Fuente, Emiliano Boffelli, Nicolas Sanchez, Tomas Cubelli; Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer, Juan Martin Gonzalez, Matias Alemanno, Guido Petti, Francisco Gomez Kodela, Julian Montoya (captain), Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro. Reserves: Agustin Creevy, Mayco Vivas, Joel Scalvi, Lucas Paulos, Facundo Isa, Gonzalo Bertranou, Santiago Carreras, Matias Moroni.

Scotland: Rory Hutchinson, Darcy Graham, Mark Bennett, Sam Johnson, Duhan van der Merwe, Blair Kinghorn, Ali Price; Matt Fagerson, Luke Crosbie, Magnus Bradbury, Jonny Gray, Grant Gilchrist (captain), Zander Fagerson, George Turner, Pierre Schoeman. Reserves: Ewan Ashman, Rory Sutherland, Javan Sebastian, Sam Skinner, Rory Darge, Ben White, Ross Thompson, Sione Tuipulotu.

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