It’s go­ing to get bru­tal out there for the Pu­mas

Bren­dan Gallagher analy­ses the task ahead of new Pu­mas head coach Mario Ledesma

The Rugby Paper - - Feature -

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

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