Las Yaguaretés Sevens: the Argentines chasing down history

Claire Thomas charts the rise of Argentina's other big cats, who will hope to take another step towards HSBC SVNS 2025 at the final women's World Rugby HSBC Sevens Challenger 2024 tournament in Krakow this weekend.

Blue and white hoops come with a certain level of expectation these days.

There’s an awful lot of pressure, particularly in the seven-a-side format of the game, to win things – moments, matches, and whole tournaments – and to prove every bit as lethal as the predators stitched into the fabric of those hallowed jerseys.

Argentina’s men are, of course, Los Pumas Sevens. Santiago Gómez Cora’s dynamos need no introduction: their ability to blend the destructive with the dazzling has seen them become world beaters this year, and their fanged, lithe emblem has never felt more appropriate.

Their women, as of 2021, have been represented by a different – perhaps even more formidable – big cat. The jaguar is the largest feline in the Americas, the third largest on Earth, and so it was a real statement of intent when the Union Argentina de Rugby (UAR) declared that Las Yaguaretés would embody ‘the spirit and attitude’ of these athletic, fearsome creatures.

A clawed gauntlet had been thrown.

Dual goals

The rebrand occurred just after Tokyo 2020 – the second time rugby sevens had featured in the Olympic Games, and the second time Argentina’s women had not.

They’d come up short against Russia in the quarter-finals of the final qualification tournament in Dublin in 2016, and then gone one step further before Hong Kong China shunted them from the repechage in 2021.

With just one spot up for grabs at the World Rugby Sevens Repechage next month, and an all-conquering China in the Monaco mix, reaching Paris will require a Herculean effort.

But this is inarguably their best shot yet, and a ticket to The City of Light isn’t all that’s at stake over the next few weeks for the women in ‘celeste y blanca’.

This weekend, they’re in Krakow as the 12 women's teams of the World Rugby HSBC Sevens Challenger 2024 descend upon Poland with four spots in Madrid’s HSBC SVNS Play-off on the line.

The brief for all those jostling for position is simple: finish in the top four, regroup and recover, hurl everything you have at the season-defining shoot-out at Estadio Cívitas Metropolitano between 31 May – 2 June, and pray that’s enough for core team status next year.

Las Yaguaretés Sevens are well placed: only needing to reach the semi-finals in Krakow to guarantee their presence in Madrid, and still within touching distance of Lu Zhuan’s undefeated table-toppers China.

They’ve only lost two matches all campaign themselves – to Kenya in the semi-finals in Dubai and against China in the final in Montevideo – and have proven all season that they’re a force on the rise, starting in October when they exploded from the traps to open their campaign with a little piece of history.

Regional success

Since the inaugural edition of the tournament in 2004, Brazil had dominated – utterly dominated – the Sudamérica Rugby Women’s Sevens Championship. They’d contested all but one instalment of the event and won them all.

As Yaras had also beaten Argentina 17-5 in June’s regional Olympic qualifier and were gearing up for a season on HSBC SVNS – when in Asuncion, Paraguay, the women in blue and white put together the best two days’ rugby in their programme’s existence.

Six matches won, 34 tries scored, just three conceded and a total disregard for two decades’ worth of Brazilian trophy lifts.

With a 20-12 victory, the title was theirs: the realisation of the dreams of “generations of girls”, as an emotional Captain María Paula Pedrozo told reporters, and a warning shot fired across the bows of the women’s game. Las Yaguaretés had well and truly arrived at the party.

As the ticker tape settled on that result, head coach Nahuel García spoke of the character and determination of the group – who’d withstood a fierce second half comeback from the reigning champions – but was also quick to stress that this was just the beginning of what they hope will prove a definitive period for the sport in Argentina.

“This will be a really intense year – in terms of physicality, the technical levels required, and game speed. We’ll need to work tirelessly behind closed doors,” he said.

One such set of doors can be found in Buenos Aires, at ‘Casa Pumas’, through which lie world-class facilities, some of the best sevens athletes on the planet, and a collective sense of ‘our time is now’.

If winning is a habit, and even slightly contagious, then where better to congregate for camps than the home of the newly-crowned men’s HSBC SVNS 2024 League Winners?

Los Pumas Sevens and Las Yaguaretés Sevens are now regularly sharing infrastructure, knowledge and ambition, with tangible evidence – gleaming, right there, on a fresh plinth in the trophy cabinet – that world orders are there to be shaken up.

They’ve certainly been putting the hours in, with a seismic five weeks upon them. Krakow, Madrid and Monaco in quick succession, and with sky-high stakes to go with García’s towering standards.

Despite his charges reaching the final in Uruguay, the coach was dissatisfied with their accuracy in attack, and concerned by their defensive fragility. That they’d put in more tackles than anyone, topped their pool with the best points difference of the tournament and didn’t miss a beat until their showdown with China is indicative of his ambitions for this group.

He’s not honing a Yaguaretés outfit to win Sevens Challenger medals, but one good enough to make waves in Madrid, and eventually call themselves Olympians.

Turning opportunity into reality

First, though: two days’ hard graft at Henryk Reyman’s Municipal Stadium in Krakow. Two-time semi-finalists this season Uganda will prove their toughest test – on tired legs late on Saturday –but the Argentines are favourites to top Pool B, after which they’re a win away from securing their spot in Madrid.

García and assistant coach Facundo Salas have kept the messaging straightforward: play their best rugby and the competition calendar will take care of itself.

They’ll be without regular captain Pedrozo, who fractured a fibula in Montevideo, so it’s Sofía González – top try-scorer in Paraguay last year, and with 16 to her name already in the Challenger – who will lead the side out, with Marya Genghini in support.

The lightning-quick Candela Delgado has made a timely return from a broken collarbone to feature, and Josefina Padellaro will run out for her country for the first time since 2021 having spent the last few seasons carving up in pink for Stade Français.

Should they reach the Olympics they have a ready-made tour guide in the Paris local.

When Argentina’s women’s sevens team became ‘Las Yaguaretés’ in November 2021, then-captain Gimena Mattus was at pains to emphasise the power of language, and that the anointing of this group with their own name could see symbolic investment soon reflected in tangible achievements.

“It enhances the personality of the team,” she argued. “We’ve been working and making sacrifices for years, and this is a leap forwards for our identity.”

The hustle, the clear sense of self and, recently, the results to match. Newly-crowned South American champions, and within touching distance of the promotion play-off in Madrid. On the horizon; a genuine shot at a first Olympic Games.

There is such a lot of hype around Los Pumas Sevens right now, and deservedly so, but this weekend serves as a reminder that they’re not the only big cats in town.

These next few weeks will be “very demanding,” García has acknowledged. “But this team know they have the tools to travel that path, and – with a lot of work – turn opportunity into reality.”

By Claire Thomas

See the HSBC SVNS champions crowned in Madrid, 31 May-2 June. Tickets from €10 are available to purchase here