By Rex Gowar
ROSARIO, Argentina (Reuters) - Argentina began and ended their second Rugby Championship on the receiving end of record scores, including Saturday's 54-17 rout by Australia, but showed improvements on last season, coach Santiago Phelan said.
"The team grew in solidity and seriousness, we took a big step forward in the set pieces and discipline," Phelan told reporters.
"We still have to improve our ball retention (and) physical fitness so we can withstand the game our opponents play and that we want to play," added Phelan, unlikely to have his contract renewed at the end of the year.
His team, at that time divided by internal squabbles, were thumped 73-13 by the Springboks in Soweto on August 24. They recovered to lose only 22-17 to South Africa in Mendoza then went down 28-13 to champions New Zealand and 14-13 to Australia on the road and 33-15 at home to the All Blacks after a rousing first half.
If Argentina are to achieve the breakthrough of a first win in the tournament, they may have to hire a foreign coach with Australian Michael Cheika a possible target according to local rugby reporters close to the Pumas and the Argentine union UAR.
Cheika is well known to Felipe Contepomi, who made his farewell Pumas appearance on Saturday, having won the Heineken Cup under the Australian at Leinster and also played for him at Stade Francais.
With New Zealand, who retained their title on Saturday, and South Africa improving as they build for the 2015 World Cup and Australia tough even in adversity, the Pumas' second season was always going to be as hard if not harder.
By the time they faced Australia in the last of the six matches in both seasons, it has been a game too far, overwhelmed by the better rugby and greater physical preparation of their opponents.
"We ended up playing at the rhythm they're used to and which doesn't suit us," Phelan said of Saturday's match.
"We have to come to terms with the intensity of matches at this level and improve to reach it."
Argentina need greater strength in depth with good signs in the promotion from the under-20 team to the Pumas' squad for this year's tournament of prop Matias Diaz, flanker Pablo Matera and lock Tomas Lavanini.
"The challenge is gigantic, very high," Pumas captain Juan Fernandez Lobbe said of the team's goal to reach the same standard as their three top southern hemisphere rivals.
"We're not satisfied just to play with the three best, we hate losing, we want to win and the pressure of the matches is the pressure we put on ourselves to compete as equals."