BUENOS AIRES – The alarm bells rang loud and clear for Pumas coach Mario Ledesma when Argentina conceded three tries from scrums in a 28-17 loss to Ireland in Dublin last November.
This was Argentina, where scrummaging was part of the rugby DNA, so Ledesma decided something had to be done, and done quickly before this year’s World Cup in Japan.
Ledesma, a world class hooker in his day who took charge of the Pumas last year after working as scrum coach for Australia under Michael Cheika, turned to Eduardo Fernandez Gill.
Fernandez Gill, coach of the Pumitas at four under-20 World Cups, was appointed in March and charged with leading a search for front row talent the length and breadth of the country.
“When Mario took charge of the Pumas he set out to recover what the scrum means as a flag of Argentine rugby,” Fernandez Gill told Reuters in an interview.
“We had taken such a big step backwards that when we played Ireland last year the three tries we conceded came from scrums.”
The plan was to get Argentine scrums to work the way they did before a spate of serious spinal injuries triggered a 2016 ban on scrums from moving more than 1.5 metres.
That ban is gradually being phased out this year but the repercussions are still working their way through the system.
“We have not been producing props as we should have done,” the 61-year-old said at his club Regatas de Buena Vista.
He said Ledesma wanted to emulate the plan put in place 30 years ago by world champions New Zealand, who Argentina face on Saturday in their Rugby Championship opener.
“New Zealand started with Mike Cron, who worked through their training centres to the top as coach of all their scrums right up to the All Blacks,” Fernandez Gill added.
“So Mario wanted to sort of copy that to bring in a person to transmit the principles and meaning of scrummaging in rugby and get back to what is our DNA.”
Daniel Hourcade, Ledesma’s predecessor as coach, did not give his Pumas scrum as much importance as developing a more open and attacking style.
That did make the Pumas one of the most attractive teams in the international game and helped them reach the semi-finals of the World Cup for the second time in 2015.
But repeating that feat in Japan without a very good scrum will be almost impossible, Fernandez Gill believes, especially as Argentina face the task of qualifying from a pool also including England and France.
There was a time when if the major European powers feared anything about Argentina, it was their scrum.
The Pumas earned their reputation as top scrummagers with their low gravity shove known as “la bajadita”, when all eight forwards, including the hooker, pushed in unison.
“At one time we made a very big difference to scrummaging,” Fernandez Gill recalled.
“We exported props who were extraordinary ambassadors for Argentine rugby. (Other countries) became convinced that if they had Argentine props, they could have an Argentine scrum.
“(But) we didn’t give the scrum the importance it needed, and what it’s going to need in the upcoming World Cup.
“So this is pure Mario, saying we’ve got to return to our source, to the scrum that set us apart from the world in the 1970s.
“What makes us different is we’re the only country in the world where the locks bind round the side (of the props) rather than underneath, but we are losing such techniques.
“The laws now enforce hooking the ball but I believe you can do exactly everything we used to do with the bajadita, hooking the ball and keeping the ball quickly.
“For that you need a very disciplined and strong scrum that moves forward a metre. Today a metre or one and a half metres in international rugby is massive.”
Australia looosehead prop Scott Sio, who came through at the Wallabies under Ledesma, said it was only natural for teams to go through good and bad spells in the scrum.
“I think every team’s going to go through (a dip),” Sio told Reuters after facing the Pumas front row in a Super Rugby match for ACT Brumbies against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires in April.
“Moving forward you’re obviously going to lose a lot of experience. They lost Marcos Ayerza, who’s been one of the premier looseheads for a very long time, not just in Argentina but the world.
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“To go through a transition phase like that is always tough, you’ve got to blood young players and give them the experience.”
Sio, who was to face the Jaguares once again in June and came out on the wrong side of a heavy semi-final defeat, said having most of the Pumas in the same Super Rugby team could only help.
“I think that having spent the time together here at the Jaguares and in the Pumas has benefitted them,” the Australian added.
“I think they’re building really nicely heading into the World Cup and I think they’ll lock their combinations down come the Rugby Championship.”