Sunday no flash in the pan for Argentina - something special has been brewing for some time

Rory Keane reports from the Pumas’ base in Bagshot.

Marcos Ayerza celebrates at full-time on Sunday.
Marcos Ayerza celebrates at full-time on Sunday.

Rory Keane reports from Pennyhill Park

THIS IS THE second time in less than a week that we have sat down with Argentina prop Marcos Ayerza.

During the build-up to his side’s seismic clash with Ireland last week, Ayerza greeted the assembled English-speaking press with a handshake and a broad smile. He spoke about his love of horse racing, his Irish roots and his love of the ‘Bajada’, the ancient Argentine scrummaging technique forged in the 1960s at the hallowed San Isidro club in Buenos Aires.

Certainly, Mike Ross and co. felt the full force of the ‘Bajada’ in the first engagement last Sunday with the Irish scrum sent hurtling back at a rate of knots by the collective force of a punishing Pumas drive.

The atmosphere at Argentina’s base at the luxurious Vale resort on the outskirts of Cardiff had been relaxed all week in the lead up to their quarter-final clash.

Every player that engaged with the media appeared comfortable, laid-back and, to a man, shared their remarkable stories.

The tales of Pablo Matera’s time with the Pampas XV in South Africa, Martin Landajo’s amateur roots and Juan Martin Hernandez’s time with Ronan O’Gara at Racing 92 were all captivating.

All appeared well in the Pumas camp. Sunday’s demolition at the Millennium Stadium was the no flash in the pan. Something special has been brewing in Argentinian rugby for quite some time.

Last night, the veteran Leicester Tigers loosehead sat down with us again. The Irish have been dispatched and a seismic semi-final against Australia on Sunday is now on the agenda.

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2015 - Quarter Final - Ireland v Argentina - Millennium Stadium There were pockets of Argentinian support in Cardiff on Sunday. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Argentina are now based at England’s former World Cup residence at Pennyhill Park in Bagshot. An ironic twist in the tale with England’s fallen players now back on club duty in the Aviva Premiership.

There was a time when a Pumas pack would have looked upon a Wallabies scrum as a weak point to exploit, but no more. Michael Cheika’s inspired appointment of former Pumas and Clermont hooker Mario Ledesma as Wallabies scrum coach almost a year ago has galvanised their once shaky set-piece.

“They’ve had a big change of mindset with the introduction of Mario Ledesma,’ said Ayerza.

“I think he’s tried to change the approach to the scrum so that instead of it being a platform to put the ball in play it has become a platform of psychological domination from which to attack. You can see how well that has gone in this World Cup. They dominated against England and have attacked most teams.”

Ayerza relishes the confrontation at the coal-face and fully expects a full-on battle with Australia at scrum-time: “I like it because it will be a proper contest – two teams wanting to test themselves in that formation. As a front row, that’s the best you can aim for – not teams just wanting to neutralise the scrum or get away with those 50-50 calls. Come to play the scrum, don’t come to get away with it.”

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Some of Argentina’s play during their 43-20 thumping of Ireland was bordering on the mesmeric.

Joe Schmidt’s injury-ravaged outfit were engulfed in a maelstrom of attacking fury during that traumatic opening quarter in Cardiff.

Pablo Matera and Leonardo Senatore punched big holes in the Irish defence, Martin Landajo and Nicolas Sanchez dictated the pace while the likes of Juan Imhoff and Joaquin Tuculet flourished in the outside channels with their speed and footwork.

Four years of facing the world’s best in the Rugby Championship has encouraged an attacking revolution in the Pumas game-plan. Even Ayerza, a grizzled veteran of the dark arts, can appreciate the refreshing change of mindset.

“It’s nice to be in a team that when you come up from a scrum you see them in front of you and not behind you where you have to go back and clean out a ruck,” said the 32-year-old.

“With Argentina, we didn’t use to be so efficient in the outside backs. Now, playing this more expansive rugby, makes it an easy job for the tight five because although we have to run a lot, we are running forwards.”

Ironically, all of these positive developments may have spelled the end of Ayerza’s career at Test level.

From next season onwards, Argentina have adopted the New Zealand model of selecting only home-based players. Only players registered with the landmark Buenos Aires-based Super Rugby side, which will compete in next season’s southern hemisphere showpiece, will be considered for Los Pumas.

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2015 - Quarter Final - Ireland v Argentina - Millennium Stadium Argentina's Guido Petti Pagadizabal, Tomas Lavanini and Ramiro Herrera. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

The yet-to-named franchise has already acquired a stellar cast of Argentina’s World Cup stars including the likes of Ramiro Herrera, captain Augustin Creevy, Tomas Lavanini, Matera, Landajo, Juan Martin Hernandez and Santiago Cordero not to mention the wondrously talented Manuel Montero who missed the World Cup due to knee injury.

Ayerza, who has been on the books at Welford Road for a decade, is still contracted with Leicester and faces a predicament going forward. Other overseas-based players such as Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, Juan Imhoff and Marcelo Bosch have big decisions to make.

“I have committed to Leicester before Argentina made any confirmation of the new policies,” added Ayerza. “I don’t know if there will be any exceptions. I play every game wearing that jersey as if it is my last one. You never know with injuries and coaches’ likes and dislikes or policies. I don’t know what will happen. It will be all new for everyone.”

If Sunday’s result was the beginning of something special, the future looks very bright for the Pumas indeed.

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