Mario Ledesma has made 10 changes to his Argentina team for their match against the Barbarians at Twickenham on Saturday. Ten months out from the World Cup the head coach is using the game as an opportunity to give some of his younger players another taste of international rugby, as he tries to increase the strength in depth of his squad before they face England and France in their pool in Japan.
Two of his team – the prop Juan Pablo Zeiss and the fullback Juan Cruz Mallia – are starting a Test for the first time and three more – the prop Mayco Vivas, the flanker Santiago Grondona and the centre Santiago Carreras – could all make their debuts off the bench.
The match will be one last lesson on an autumn tour that, Ledesma says, has been all about learning. He took over as head coach in August after his predecessor, Daniel Hourcade, quit after a run of 15 defeats in 17 games, saying “the players had stopped responding”.
Ledesma does not appear to have that problem, because there was an immediate improvement in results. In the Rugby Championship, they won at home against South Africa, 32-19, and away against Australia, 23-19, but in the return leg of that last match they blew a 24-point lead and lost 45-34.
Since then, they have lost to Ireland 28-17, France 28-13 and Scotland 14-9. But Ledesma says: “The goal of our tour was to breed a couple of new players and try new combinations, and keep learning. We only started with the team four months ago and we are all learning, staff and players.”
The hooker Julián Montoya describes it as “a tough, tough tour”. There is more riding on this match than there is on most games the Barbarians play. “It’s a big game for us, the idea is to make sure we finish it off in the right way.”
The big question for Ledesma before the World Cup is whether and when he is going to be able to select players who play overseas, and how he will be able to integrate them with the ones who are based in Argentina. With the odd exception, Hourcade was really only allowed to pick players who stayed home, but the Argentina board changed the rules for Ledesma and told him he could pick overseas players “as needed”. A couple, Juan Figallo and Ramiro Herrera, were called up to play in the Rugby Championship but it is still a grey area.
Nicolas Sanchez has been able to play this autumn even though the outhalf is signed with Stade Français because his contract with Argentina's union ran right up to the end of November. But there are plenty of other fine Argentinian players in Europe who have been frozen out, such as Juan Imhoff at Racing 92, Facundo Isa at Toulon and Santiago Cordero at Exeter.
Ledesma has suggested “a World Cup year is different” and that he will be able to call up who he likes in 2019.
In the meantime, Ledesma is pressing on with the job of building up a competitive squad out of the players who are based in Argentina, with the Jaguares Super Rugby franchise. Ledesma coached the Jaguares into the playoffs for the first time last season but Test rugby is another step up again for some of the younger players, who are fresh out of Argentinian club rugby.
It is a particular challenge for the props, because at the domestic level in Argentina it is illegal to push more than one and a half metres at a scrum, unless it is a five-metre scrum. The rule was introduced because there had been so many injuries but Ledesma says it is “detrimental to all Argentine rugby”.
– Guardian Service
ARGENTINA: J Mallia; S Canelliere, M Orlando, B Ezcurra, R Moyano; J Diaz Bonilla, M Landajo; J-P Zeiss, J Montoya, S Medrano, G Petti, M Alemanno, P Matera (capt), T Lezana, R Bruni. Replacements: A Creevy, M Vivas, L Sordoni, T Lavanini, S Grondona, T Cubelli, J de la Fuente, S Carreras.
BARBARIANS: J Debreczeni (Chiefs); T Benvenuti (Italy), T English (Australia), D De Allende (South Africa), A Dyantyi (South Africa); H Pollard (South Africa), L Fukofuka (Tonga); W Crockett (New Zealand, capt), S Brits (South Africa), T Nyakane (South Africa), L Jones (Australia), L De Jager (South Africa), S Kolisi (South Africa), P-S Du Toit (South Africa), J M Leguizamon (Argentina). Replacements: S Kitshoff (South Africa), M Marx (South Africa), A Peikrishvili (Georgia), S Notshe (South Africa), J Taufua (Crusaders), F Lomani (Fiji), J Kriel (South Africa), E Jantjies ( South Africa).