It’s been a long season for the Pumas. What’s more, it included an unscheduled change of management at the halfway point when Mario Ledesma, head coach of the Jaguares and assistant to the Wallabies, was hurried into the position vacated by Daniel Hourcade, whose post was untenable even before Scotland ran 44 points past his team in the summer.
A journalist this week tested Ledesma’s good nature by suggesting Argentina were “cr*p” that day and, while they are much improved in recent weeks, they weren’t much cop against France last week either.
“Scotland was cra*p just a couple of years ago,” the coach shot back with what looked like relish.
Ledesma is an Argentine legend, a grizzled front row forward who played much of his rugby in France, especially for Clermont. He was also a member of that Argentine 2007 World Cup squad that finished in third place. He was always one of the games’ thinkers and he now leads a young Pumas side attempting to compete on a world stage.
“We were wishing to get the team after the World Cup,” he explains. “That was the plan in my head but it didn’t work that way.
“Obviously we didn’t play well against France and that is being kind. Not only rugby-wise but some of our guys tackled more than 20 times against Ireland and then tackled four or five times against France. You can’t go from 24 to 4 tackles! At least mentally I imagine the guys will be up for it [the Scotland game].
“It’s been a long year and despite that result against South Africa, I think your guys will be confident. And Fiji was a tricky game but you ended with 50 points. Even before, when Vern Cotter was here, he did a great job and your pro-teams are playing well in the European Cup so you have been building some momentum.”
Argentina have not beaten Scotland since the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, Ledesma helping the Pumas to a nervy one-point win. But the Scots have won the last four fixtures.
And, while Scotland struggle occasionally in the international arena with just the two pro-teams and a smattering of foreign based players, every Puma player bar one belongs to the Jaguares.
“It is difficult,” responds the coach. “When I went to Argentina I knew what was going on. It wasn’t a surprise. That is the rule and we have to make the most of it. We try to expand the depth of the team and if we keep calling on guys overseas we are not giving guys [at home] the opportunity to play at this level or even at Super Rugby.
Was he surprised that Townsend went with Finn Russell at 12 and Adam Hastings at 10? “Yes.” How do you combat that threat?
“I don’t know,” Ledesma replied, before adding: “I don’t know the other kid [Hastings] but he seems to be a good player too. When you have guys with confidence you allow yourself those kind of formulas and then the game will decide whether it worked or it didn’t.”
How do you set up to play against this Scotland side?
“You don’t have to go into the game throwing punches for every punch they throw at you.
“If you get into that rhythm where they throw the ball around and you start kicking the ball to them and you start playing loose, that’s not the way to play them.
“I think you need to keep hold of your ball and if you give them the ball it has to be on your terms. I don’t think we should play a loose game.”
And Argentina will surely test the Russell-Hastings axis in defence?
“One hundred percent!” he laughs. “Yeah, yeah. You don’t have to be a genius to know that.
“I think Gregor expects us to do that and maybe he is testing the character of that combination? He knows we are going to try and put them under pressure.”
And what does the Argentine coach predict for today’s result?
“I am thinking more about the game against France last weekend,” he replies, “and what I am looking for has nothing to do with the result.”
He is looking instead for a return to that typically aggressive Argentine attitude?
“Yes,” he replied. “We went through the stats against France and we weren’t up to it. That is why I am talking about attitude.”