LONDON, Nov 28 (Reuters) - Pumas coach Mario Ledesma says a rule introduced in Argentine rugby two years ago following a spate of serious injuries has emasculated their once-feared scrums and potentially weakened their World Cup challenge.
When San Isidro Club prop Jeronimo Bello was left severely disabled from a collapsed scrum in a Buenos Aires first division match in September 2016, the fourth serious injury in a year, the governing body of Argentine Rugby (UAR) took action.
The UAR ruled that teams in Argentine domestic competitions would be penalised for pushing more than one and a half metres, except at five-metre scrums.
The rule change affected all top-flight domestic competitions, which are amateur in Argentina, from which the Pumas and the professional Jaguares Super Rugby franchise recruit players.
Ledesma, who took charge of Argentina before the southern hemisphere’s mid-year Rugby Championship, told Reuters that the Pumas’ scrummaging culture had been severely impacted and it would take two years of hard work to recover the full power of Argentina’s scrum.
The Pumas, however, have less than a year until the 2019 World Cup in Japan where Argentina share a pool with England, France, Tonga and the United States.
“More than to me in particular, (the rule) is detrimental to all Argentine rugby,” said Ledesma, who will use his team’s fourth European tour match against the Barbarians at Twickenham on Saturday to give his young forwards more experience against top opposition.
Ledesma said he understood why the measure was taken due to the injuries that had occurred, although he feels that they had not suffered more than average in Argentina.
“I’d say that in Australia there are quite a few more (serious injuries) than in Argentina,” added Ledesma, who spent two years working as an assistant to Wallabies coach Michael Cheika. “Not only does it weaken Argentine scrummaging culture, which is part of our DNA, but it’s also part of a forward’s soul.”
Ledesma said the rule change had left Argentina’s emerging talents unprepared for the demands of top-level rugby.
“Today scrums in Argentina last five or six seconds which is why the kids who come to us from their clubs are surprised by the hardness of a scrum and if it lasts more than 10 seconds it discomforts them in a manner of speaking,” he said.
“You have to be able to enjoy that kind of wrestling and (understand) the bearing it has on other areas of the game,” said the 45-year-old former hooker, a member of Argentina’s most successful World Cup side that won the bronze medal in France in 2007.
“The cohesion you achieve in a team with a solid scrum and the psychological boost (you get) from that is immeasurable.”
Argentina won two out of six tests in the Rugby Championship and have suffered three defeats in three tour matches in November.
Ledesma said that results had depended on how well the forwards had peeled away from rucks into defensive positions, with the Pumas having on occasions left themselves thin defensively on one flank or the other.
He singled out victories over South Africa and Australia in the Rugby Championship and last Saturday’s 14-9 loss to Scotland, which Argentina could have won with better place kicking from the normally reliable Nicolas Sanchez.
“If we want to get past the Pool round at the World Cup we definitely have to have a good defence and that’s what we’re working on,” he said.
“With the work we’ve started now with these kids who are 19, 20 years old, it’s going to take two to three years to reach a very good standard. I’m sure we’ll get there, they have the physical and mental strength for us to work on,” Ledesma said.
Argentina had a very good World Cup in England in 2015 under Ledesma’s predecessor Daniel Hourcade, reaching the semi-finals for the second time.
To help them in Japan, the UAR has relaxed their ban on calling up foreign-based players, allowing Ledesma to pick experienced props like Saracens’ Juan Figallo and Ramiro Herrera of Stade Francais.
“A World Cup year is different,” said Ledesma.
“In the meantime, it’s been more important to go developing our kids by putting them up against the hardness of northern hemisphere scrums.” (Reporting by Rex Gowar Editing by Toby Davis)