It’s going to get brutal out there for the Pumas
Brendan Gallagher analyses the task ahead of new Pumas head coach Mario Ledesma
SO which Pumas team is going to turn up in Europe this November? The abysmal outfit which sleepwalked to defeats against understrength Wales and Scotland teams this summer or the much sharper and incisive side that beat Australia on the road in the Rugby Championship, defeated South Africa at home and raced into a 31-7 lead over the Wallabies in Salta before somehow snatching defeat from the jaws of victory?
For a while now – in fact since discovering they possessed some brilliant backs – ‘new’ Argentina have done a decent impersonation of ‘old’ France.
Mercurial and unpredictable. Brilliant one moment yet somehow clueless and unfocussed the next. On fire one Saturday, not at the races next time out. The old powerful but rather predictable Pumas sides have been consigned to history.
However, the one thing the Pumas do seem to have cracked in modern times is peaking for World Cups and that is what they are beginning to work towards now. England be warned.
So far 2018 has been a period of radical change, what Argentina need now is to regroup a little. The great Mario Ledesma, below, having proved his worth as a head coach very quickly with Los Jaguares, was brought in for Daniel Hourcade as national coach after the dismal June series and he – and his newly appointed coaching staff– have unquestionably made a difference with a new energy coursing through the players’ veins.
Ledesma has also appointed a new captain, the barnstorming flanker Pablo Matera who, despite missing half of the Super Rugby schedule through injury, was named in the Tournament XV of the season. Matera was Ledesma’s captain at Los Jaguares and the two clearly work closely together which is always handy.
Matera replaces Agustin Creevy who has been an absolute Trojan for the Pumas during their difficult first few seasons in the Rugby Championship, consistently one of their best players and a rallying point when it was all going pear-shaped. Creevy isn’t quite finished as a player yet, he hopes to make it through to Japan next year and at his best he is right up there with Malcolm Marx and others in the world rankings. Ledesma – another hooking great known for his longevity– is banking on a glorious swansong year from Creevy before he retires. Big boots to fill for Matera who seems to have been around forever but is still only 25. Approaching his pomp, Matera already has 55 caps, graduating via the Pampas team playing in South Africa and a short injuryplagued spell at Leicester where he didn’t set the world on fire although I do recall a MOM performance at Quins which hinted at his potential. Matera very much represents the young brigade, the star player of a talented generation, and on a personal level the next few weeks will be a baptism of fire as a captain if not a player. The Pumas side he inherits are still plagued by familiar problems. Their scrummage is a pale imitation of the mean machine that used to instil fear in opponents and their lineout is not as good as it should be. They also fade alarmingly in and out of matches. All this needs to be urgently addressed and Ireland first up at the Aviva will be some initiation ceremony for Matera. Not only are Ireland on fire and world ranked two, there is such a rivalry, some would say animosity, between the two nations that the match will be of World Cup intensity. The warring parties have historically tended to bring the worst out of each other. Both sides have moved on and now regularly produce some of the most fluent and disciplined rugby you could hope to see, but some of their encounters from yesteryear were just plain brutal and even today there is always an edge.
The rivalry really kicked off at their World Cup quarter-final play-off in Lens in 1999 although their World Cup warm- up match less than two months earlier was unusually feisty for one of those normally tepid affairs.
That Pumas’ win in 1999 – the day the Buenos Aires Stock Exchange was temporarily suspended to allow brokers to watch the closing minutes – kick started the rise and rise of the Pumas and was the wake up call that eventually led to Irish rugby getting its act together.
Four years later in a torrid pool match at the Adelaide Oval – bodyline was child’s play in comparison – Ireland somehow squeezed home 16-15 in a filthy match which resulted in numerous citings and two lengthy suspensions for Mauricio Reggiardo and Roberto Grau for gouging. A ‘friendly’ 16-7 Ireland win at Lansdowne Road the previous autumn had been another X-rated affair as well.
So 1-1 heading to RWC2007 when Irish hopes were so high, but they were sent crashing at the Stade de France when Argentina comprehensively outplayed the Irish, Juan Martin Hernandez chipping in with three exquisite dropped goals as the Pumas won 30-15.
And at RWC2015 the Pumas were unstoppable against an injury-hit Irish side, pouring on the style as they raced to a remarkable 43-20 win at the Millennium Stadium.
All this rankles horribly with Ireland, an annoying scab to be picked with some regularity, and even with the All Blacks lying in wait just a week later the Irish will be full on.
Ledesma understands that and with France – another fixture that traditionally tends towards the explosive – and Scotland to follow his squad are about to get the most thorough of end of year health check. Painful but much needed.
Barnstorming flanker: Pablo Matera