JOHANNESBURG - Last year, Wallabies coach Michael Cheika’s emotionally-charged farewell to his forwards coach, Mario Ledesma, said it all about the stature and respect the Argentinean enjoys in the upper reaches of rugby’s hierarchy.
Cheika had watched the former Puma hooker transform his wobbly scrum in time for the 2015 World Cup in England, where the Wallabies’ rock solid set piece was a novel cornerstone of their advance to the final.
“It is not easy to let you go, you have been awesome for us but I understand how passionate you are about your country and our loss is Argentinean rugby’s gain,” Cheika told Ledesma when he chose not to renew his contract with the Wallabies and return to his native country.
Ledesma has already by some margin fulfilled Cheika’s prophecy that rugby in Argentina would be boosted by the “the scrum doctor”, as he is reverently known. This year, having coached the Jaguares to the playoffs for the first time, the 45-year-old was an unanimous choice to step in as Pumas coach when Daniel Hourcade fell on his sword in June.
It was really a case of Hobson’s Choice for Hourcade after a sorry Pumas team lost at home in two Tests against a depleted Wales team and then heavily lost to a second-string Scottish team. Under Hourcade, since finishing fourth at the last Rugby World Cup, the Pumas had won six Tests and lost 22, including all six in the Rugby Championship last season.
In the June Tests, the same players that excelled under Ledesma seemed disinterested under Hourcade. Clearly they were making a statement that they wanted Super Mario, as the fans lovingly refer to him, to take over the national team. It did not take Ladesma long to sort out the underperforming Jaguares this season.
They started the season poorly, losing three of their first four games but then Ledesma’s magic began to work and they went unbeaten in four matches in Australia and New Zealand, where they beat the Blues and the Chiefs, and they also went unbeaten against South African opposition in Buenos Aires.
We saw rugby supporters in the Argentine capital rediscovering their passionate voices, turning the Estadio José Amalfitani into a fortress of unrelenting noise. The Jaguares were suddenly getting crowds of between 30 000 and 40 000, numbers that South African franchises can only dream of.
How has Ledesma done it? Firstly, he is a national hero in Argentina and is hugely respected and adored for his unstinting contribution to the Pumas over an international career that earned him 84 caps between 1996 to 2011.
In any other major rugby country he would have earned well over a 100 caps but for much of the professional era, Argentina played half of the average number of Tests of the other top countries.
Ledesma played in four World Cups - 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011 - and had stints at French clubs Narbonne, Castres and Clermont. He then coached at Stade Francais and Montpellier before joining the Wallabies. Respect is enormous in the Latin culture and Ledesma did not have to utter a word when he took over the Jaguares to have the players willing to run through brick walls for him.
An obvious priority for the scrum doctor was to treat the Jaguares’ ailing scrum. It seems inconceivable that this aspect of the Argentinean game had fallen into a state of disrepair given that the famed “bajada” scrum technique was the principal weapon of the Pumas for decades.
The Jaguares scrum advanced for the first time in three years of Super Rugby, and another area of notable improvement was there discipline. During the Jaguares’ victorious tour of New Zealand he told reporters that his initial goals, besides fixing the scrum, were to create a sense of belief and identity in the team.
“I don’t think the players believed they could compete with the major teams in this country. “Now we are proving we can.” The Pumas historically run on pride and passion ... under Super Mario it will be akin to rocket fuel.