By Brendan O’Brien
Mario Ledesma is in rare form.
Not even the emptying heavens can dampen his spirits at the Aviva Stadium as he throws a loose eye over players going through the motions of a captain’s run. His mood afterward is a combination of the jocular and the mischievous.
Ledesma and Joe Schmidt spent three years together at Clermont Auvergne, the former a veteran forward, the latter a slightly reserved attack coach whose “ruthless” streak took the South American by surprise when he first heard news of it from Ireland.
The pair sat down for a beer together this week, Ledesma picking the Kiwi’s brains on coaching and there is a broad grin when he learns that his curveball in choosing a lock, Guido Petti, in the back-row had taken his drinking buddy by surprise. Might he have anything else up his sleeve?
“There is going to be something in the food tonight.”
Good humoured he may be but Ledesma is taking care of some serious business. It has fallen to him, since Daniel Hourcade’s spell at the helm came to an end earlier this year, to guide the Pumas towards next year’s World Cup in Japan. It is a job that, for him, extends far beyond the nuts and bolts of scrummaging technique and attacking moves. That much is clear when he replies to a routine query as to whether his squad possesses the belief that they can replicate their win against Australia on the Gold Coast this summer by defeating Schmidt’s Irish side in Dublin.
“That’s more of a media thing,” he explains.
“You guys do those calculations, we just train and play the best we can and … we try to do our best on the field. Especially with a young team with a lot of changes. We are not result-driven.”
Here’s where it got interesting…
“Keep believing, keep believing, keep believing.”
The Pumas already have reason to believe in him. Two wins in the Rugby Championship – and it should have been more – represented a best ever return for the South Americans and it bears pointing out just how difficult it is for them to be that competitive.
Forget all the air miles they must endure, the squad that Ledesma brought to Europe this month contains half-a-dozen amateurs from the domestic Top 12 league. Some of those in today’s 23-man squad have taken the same path.
“It looks like the old days but it’s a good thing for the team and for the soul of the team, too.”
The old days weren’t all bad, of course. It used to be that Argentina had a scrum, the bajada, that bore a fearsome reputation.
It was much more than a set-piece. It was a keystone, a cornerstone, of their rugby culture. Now it is a mess. Fixing that is the priority.
“That’s been a challenge for us. And that’s why we brought over here young players too.
“It’s as much a mental battle as physical. It’s the toughest job on the field, one hundred per cent.
“I have forgotten the name of your tight-head who went to the World Cup. Furlong! He was a young kid and wasn’t very good. Now, he is the best in the world. We have been going through a process that we have been obliged to and we are paying a price because of it but I am ready to do it. That is the way you should do it. We need to step up and grow. We have never hidden from that reality. We will step up and see what happens.”