Patriotic Ledesma now plotting downfall of his beloved Argentina
Former Pumas hooker now firmly ensconced in the Australian camp
Australia’s scrum coach Mario Ledesma takes part in a team training session in Teddington, south west London. Photograph: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty
In the end, this week’s public silence proved deafening.
“I had no idea what he was doing, I just push on the side, mate.”
That’s the point. Even Michael Hooper, a tearaway flanker to his fingertips, pushes in the Wallaby scrum nowadays.
It wasn’t always that way but the mindset has been altered, South American-style by a man Michael Cheika was advised about before leaving Dublin for Paris, and so hired straight off the playing paddock with no formal coaching experience.
“He was crawling through the middle [of the scrum] and I was just thinking, ‘What is this guy doing?’” Hooper explained.
“That was one of the first days in. I thought it was going to collapse [on him], but the boys managed to keep it up. He’s an integral part of this team and has been since day dot.”
Mario Ledesma is not doing media, they told us on Monday, but imagine the impact a teary-eyed, yet darkened brow, call to arms would do for the Wallabies before they take the field at Twickenham.
“All Argentineans are pretty emotional, I think,” went Hooper. “He’s brought a lot of that passion that probably sometimes Australians don’t have.”
Ledesma didn’t do interviews because he doesn’t want to be misinterpreted. But he is the story. The greatest in a long line of gnarly Puma hookers. Four World Cups. Half a dozen brawls with Ireland and Munster. A scrum coach of such bloody-mindedness he lies in the tunnel beneath Wallaby props who didn’t exactly have a reputation for remaining upright when he first burrowed in there.
Inherent passionAustraliaStephen Moore
Ledesma’s problem is an inherent passion for all things related to Argentina rugby. And now he must, literally, plot their downfall. The scrum being the Pumas breathing apparatus, Ledesma was the windpipe 84 times from 1996 to 2011.
“When we went to Mendoza to play in the Rugby Championship we were walking up the stairs to the box before the match and I said to him, ‘Are you going to sing your anthem, the Argentine anthem?’” said Michael Cheika.
“He wasn’t sure if he was allowed or not. ‘Of course you can, that’s your heritage.’ And I want him to love that but I know he loves this team and he’ll do anything he can this week to make sure this team are in the best possible spot going forward.
“One of the big reasons why it was easy to bring Mario in was the fact he has a very good way about expressing himself in English,” said Cheika.
“He’s a very good English speaker. I know having coached in countries with foreign languages that it is one thing talking the language, but it is another thing making the point in a rugby sense when sometimes you need to get to the heart of a player.
“Mario has been able to conquer that, to link the mental and passion side [of coaching]. It’s always about balancing that.”
Cheika added a cautionary note about the lack of consistency from the Wallaby set-piece but the scrum has become a weapon.
“He keeps it pretty basic and tells it how it is, I like being coached like that,” is the Kane Douglas view.
Ledesma’s epic club and Test match career punctured several holes in Irish rugby dreams. His peak was at Parc des Princes in 2007 but he kept trucking along to 2011 to assist Argentina’s succession plans.
“He was a number eight exactly the same as [Agustín] Creevy,” Frankie Deges, the veteran Argentinean journalist, remembers. “They were not big enough to make it [as loose forwards]. The Argentinean coaches told him if he wanted to have any future he would have to move to hooker. In less than a year he was already playing internationals.”
The number two jersey was wrapped around him at the 1999 World Cup because of injury to Federico Mendes (he who decked Paul Ackford at Twickenham on his Test debut aged 18 in 1990). A few lineouts went astray in the 2003 World Cup opener against Australia and Ledesma was dropped for the Adelaide defeat to Ireland that ended their interest in the tournament.
Argentina’s rivalry with Ireland became toxic after that filthy game at Lansdowne Road in 2004.
“We won it with a last-minute drop goal from Ronan O’Gara, who proceeded to rub it in by jumping in the air and clicking his heels beside Mario Ledesma,” wrote Alan Quinlan in 2012. “Rog had taken dog’s abuse all the way through the game – both verbally and physically – and he knew well what he was doing and who he was doing it to. It was like a red rag to a bull for them.
“One way or another, we were on our feet and nearly had the jackets off us ready to go and get involved. It all calmed down pretty quickly in the end but for a minute it looked like things could have got out of hand.”
Funnily enough, the Argentinean version of that story has Ledesma as peacemaker, approaching O’Gara to bury the hatchet only to be sent into a rage by sharp Cork words. Now nobody really cares anymore but it shows Ledesma was and remains a fearsome competitor.
Felipe Contepomi, reportedly, introduced him to Cheika. When the knives came out at Stade Francais, the club quietly offered Ledesma the top job but instead of accepting he informed Cheika of the impending coup.
“Mario is a real rugby guy, that’s what’s so cool about him,” said Deges. “He’s loyal guy, a lovely guy.”
Ledesma suffered another jagged experience as forwards coach under Fabien Galthié at Montpellier but at the first opportunity Cheika rehired him, first at the Waratahs, before returning him to his natural habitat. World Cups.
About that speech then.
“He likes to shed a tear every so often in the dressing room or a team meeting, just for a bit of fun,” Cheika laughed.
“Personally I see it as a great challenge for Mario. When you go into battle against guys you have been with for many years I think it inspires you to do better. That’s how I feel and I think for someone like Mario it is going to do exactly the same thing. I think it will motivate him to do better than he’s ever done before.”
“He’s part of our team now, he’s one of us, but if you look at our team we got guys from all over the place. Guys with Fijian background, Tongan, Samoan, my folks are Irish. Cheik comes from a different background as well [Lebanese]. We’re from all over the place.”
Ironically Argentina are the only squad at the World Cup with no players born outside their borders.
“What’s important is we are tied into the same values,” Moore concludes. “Mario is no different. As I said, he’s one of us.”