Just where has all the argy-bargy gone?

For over a decade games be­tween Ire­land and Ar­gentina car­ried an ex­plo­sive edge

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RUGBY AUTUMN INTERNATIONALS - Gavin Cum­miskey

“There’s nig­gle all over the place. Bad blood. Two of our lads are gouged. The Ar­gen­tines makes our lives a mis­ery with their crazy in­ten­sity and their re­fusal to go away and die.” – Brian O’Driscoll, in his book, The Test, on the Ire­land vic­tory over Ar­gentina at the 2003 World Cup.

As night falls on the Belfield Bowl, Mario Ledesma is on the phone.

In­ces­sant driz­zle sees the hulk­ing Pu­mas trudge past and onto their ho­tel ferry. Ledesma used to be among them, he used to put that dis­tinct mug and bald dome at the heart of dark­ness.

Nowa­days the rugged 45-year-old as­sumes the voice of rea­son. Mem­o­ries of Mun­ster wars in Cler­mont and con­flicts at post-match func­tions make such a no­tion seem ridicu­lous.

But talk to the old hooker, Aussie twang from too many days in Michael Cheika’s slip­stream, and no men­ace is de­tected.

A lovely dichotomy in the pre­vi­ous hour has Ledesma ham­mer­ing this tour­ing club team, these Jaguares dis­guised as Pu­mas, across the slip-slid­ing UCD sur­face (we are ban­ished be­fore his in­fa­mous col­lec­tive-breath­ing scrum clinic).

Wait­ing for strag­glers to board the bus, he is en­gag­ing, de­spite the topic of con­ver­sa­tion, even a lit­tle loose when re­mem­ber­ing the bad old days.

“The spe­cial thing was we played each other at three World Cups in a row – re­ally im­por­tant games. Win and you go into the next round. We got them in ’99 and they got us in 2003 and we got them again in 2007.

“They were big ri­val­ries on the field but out­side the field too,” he beams. “A lot of chat go­ing on.”

The off-field an­i­mos­ity spilled into a Dublin night more than once but mid­dle -aged men rem­i­nisc­ing their zenith is all that re­mains.

Un­til re­cently Ledesma and Ro­nan O’Gara were coaches by trade in France, so hatch­ets got buried in com­mon­al­ity.

“I think ev­ery­one en­joyed it and it is fin­ished now,” Ledesma con­tin­ues. “Af­ter those years I had a chat with Ro­nan and with Paul O’Con­nell. It’s all good now.”

Per­ma­nent seat

The best of times, the worst of times, ran from 1999 to Novem­ber 2010 – es­sen­tially when O’Gara and Ledesma were forced off the carousel.

Those want­ing to let sleep­ing dogs lie, cover your eyes. Dur­ing the 2003 World Cup match in Ade­laide, Roberto Grau (nine weeks) and Mauricio Reg­gia­rdo (six) were sus­pended for goug­ing Keith Wood and Reg­gie Cor­ri­gan.

“The ev­i­dence is there,” Wood pre­vi­ously stated. “You see I was ly­ing on my back and he [Grau] drew his hand over my eyes.”

The story of Ire­land and Ar­gentina cen­tred around two coun­tries seek­ing a per­ma­nent seat among the estab­lished rugby na­tions.

“There is a cer­tain qual­ity Ir­ish and Ar­gen­tinean play­ers share,” said Felipe Con­tepomi re­cently. “Two proud na­tions. Even when you take them out of the Ir­ish set-up – look at Don­nacha Ryan in Paris – they will play with the same pas­sion. Same goes for us. Now, put 15 of us against 15 of them, all those crazy play­ers, it had to be the way it was.”

The af­ter­math of an au­tumn in­ter­na­tional in Novem­ber 2004 turned par­tic­u­larly nasty. Here was an­other ra­zor-tight con­test set­tled by an O’Gara drop goal, which he cel­e­brated like Dorothy in the vicin­ity of the wicked Ledesma, who was de­nied re­tal­i­a­tion by the fi­nal whis­tle.

Agustin Pi­chot – the cur­rent vice chair­man of World Rugby – and Con­tepomi – who had only re­cently joined Le­in­ster – ar­rived into the since de­mol­ished Lans­downe pavil­ion to point the fin­ger at Brian O’Driscoll’s un­sport­ing be­haviour. The young Ire­land cap­tain, they stated, was try­ing to hus­tle Tony Spread­bury into us­ing the sin-bin.

“Ref,” O’Driscoll was picked up say­ing on the mi­cro­phone, “This is get­ting fuck­ing dirty.”

Ire­land coach Ed­die O’Sul­li­van claimed six of his play­ers felt the panic that only comes from the fear of goug­ing.

“Si­mon Easterby [cur­rent Ire­land for­wards coach] needed stitches af­ter he was gouged in the mouth,” wrote O’Gara in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. “I was one of their tar­gets and I was lucky that yer man just missed. I ended up with a gash next to my right eye.”

Later that night O’Gara was chat­ting with Pi­chot at the bar when Ledesma rolled over to abuse him in Spanish. An­other ver­sion claims a sharp Cork ac­cent sparked the row. Ei­ther way, big­ger men in­ter­vened.

O’Con­nell, the cur­rent Stade Fran­cais for­wards coach, where Ledesma worked briefly un­der Cheika, ar­rived on the scene.

Car­ried away

“When it stays on the field and is all good-hearted it was fun and it’s true we were both striv­ing to be in the tier one. But not only that we wanted to be­come bet­ter teams,” says Ledesma. “Ob­vi­ously Ire­land have done it more con­sis­tently; num­ber two in the world and well de­served too.”

But it did spill off the pitch?

“Yeah, kind of, we weren’t that pro­fes­sional at the time. There was a lit­tle bit of drink­ing af­ter the games and stuff and we got a lit­tle car­ried away but it doesn’t hap­pen any­more. It was fun­nier at the time.” Fun has many mean­ings. “He likes to shed a tear ev­ery so of­ten in a team meet­ing,” said Cheika of the for­mer Wal­laby scrum guru be­fore Aus­tralia beat Ar­gentina in the 2015 World Cup semi-fi­nal. “Just for a bit of fun.”

“He was al­ready coach­ing,” said Joe Sch­midt of his for­mer hooker at Cler­mont Au­vergne. “When­ever Vern Cot­ter wasn’t there I’d al­ways de­fer to Mario to drive the pack.”

Con­tepomi strikes a chord when say­ing both teams needed to see the other off by any means nec­es­sary. That’s the at­ti­tude he brought to Le­in­ster un­der Cheika when a long-run­ning feud was sparked with De­nis Leamy and O’Gara af­ter some talk while he place-kicked at Mus­grave Park in 2005.

It took four to tango. Con­tepomi was in the thick of these run­ning con­flicts as much as Ledesma, Leamy and O’Gara poured ver­bal fuel on the flames of a ri­valry that peaked dur­ing Ire­land’s spec­tac­u­lar col­lapse at the 2007 World Cup.

It begs the ques­tions of Ledesma: How come Ar­gentina had Ire­land’s num­ber for so long?

“We were all play­ing pro­fes­sion­ally at the time,” he replies. “If you look at the team of 2007 for ex­am­ple – okay, ’99 shouldn’t have hap­pened! – but by ’07 we were all start­ing in teams in Ire­land, Eng­land and France.” And the sweet­est vic­tory? “’99 and ’07, the same.” What do you re­mem­ber about Lens? “Those last seven, eight min­utes that the ref gave them, maybe a lit­tle too much? I think no­body wanted us to go for­ward. When we came to our ho­tel in Dublin the Ir­ish names were in our rooms! They had pre­pared to stay in that ho­tel for the quar­ter-fi­nal.”

The old days have passed but many key fig­ures linger. Gon­zalo Que­sada, “The Reaper of Lens” wrote O’Driscoll, is seem­ingly rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing the Jaguares/Pu­mas at­tack af­ter 11 years as­sis­tant coach­ing with France, Rac­ing 92, Stade and Biar­ritz.

On this un­seemly night in UCD, as Ledesma’s iPhone pro­vides light in the gloom, not 50 me­tres away we imag­ine Con­tepomi por­ing over film with Leo Cullen and Stu­art Lan­caster in the Le­in­ster head­quar­ters.

“I think they did [con­tact Con­tepomi for in­for­ma­tion],” smiles scrumhalf Martín Lan­dajo. “I think he is rob­bing good stuff from here for when he comes back to Ar­gentina!” Lan­dajo jokes un­til he doesn’t. “He will come back.” Con­tepomi re­alised the only way to grow as a coach was to be ex­posed to lessons out­side Ar­gentina. Like when he was a player. Yet that’s no longer the Pu­mas model. Their hy­brid ver­sion of the Ir­ish pro­fes­sional struc­tures has the Jaguares func­tion­ing as their soli­tary pro­fes­sional out­fit in Su­per Rugby which is re­ally the na­tional team in dif­fer­ent colours.

“It shouldn’t be the same,” says Ledesma. “This should be a greater thing. If we are pre­par­ing the same way for Jaguares and Pu­mas we have got it wrong. Even though we are rep­re­sent­ing Ar­gentina in Su­per Rugby we are not play­ing with our flag on our chests. No, it’s not the same. This is dif­fer­ent.” The bus is leav­ing with­out the coach. Can the for­mer “fun” be re­born? “I hope so.”

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: IN­PHO

Clock­wise from main: Ro­nan O’Gara has words with Ro­drigo Ron­cero in 2007; O’Gara is tack­led by Felipe Con­tepomi in 2004; John Hayes leaves the field with a head wound in 2003.

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