'He was crawling through the middle and I was thinking, 'what is this guy doing?'

Former Pumas hooker Mario Ledesma has transformed the Australian scrum.

Murray Kinsella reports from the Lensbury Hotel

WITH SEVEN MINUTES on the clock in the Millennium Stadium last Sunday came a huge moment in the contest.

Ireland were already 7-0 down after Matías Moroni’s stunning early try, but Joe Schmidt’s men had an attacking scrum inside the Pumas’ 22. A superb opportunity to strike back, an ideal chance to grab back some of the early momentum.

Mario Ledesma Ledesma in Pumas colours in 2010. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Instead, the Argentinians produced a scrum that Mario Ledesma would have watched with pride. Sinking just after Conor Murray’s feed, the Pumas pack drove over the ball and disintegrated the Irish pack, drawing a penalty from Jérôme Garcès.

The spirit of bajada invoked and less than two minutes later, Juan Imhoff scored Argentina’s second try.

Ledesma would have loved that scrum and taken a deep satisfaction from seeing his compatriots thrive in the area of the game. But as Australia’s scrum coach, Ledesma has been tasked with plotting the downfall of the Pumas’ set-piece tomorrow in the World Cup semi-final between the sides at Twickenham.

One of Michael Cheika’s greatest attributes is the consistent ability to surround himself with excellent assistant coaches. He’s done that with the Wallabies by bringing on board the likes of Stephen Larkham, Nathan Grey and Ledesma.

The Argentinian specialist has helped change the perception of the Australia scrum to a barely credible degree. Previously derided around world as a push over at scrum time, the Wallabies have developed to the point where they actually can push over the ball.

Ledesma – formerly a hooker capped 84 times by Argentina in a career than spanned four World Cups – has been essential in the shift since joining the Wallabies set-up at the beginning of this year.

“He had his chance to play, for about 50 years I think he played for,” says Cheika. “He’d probably like to play, but I think he injured his calf yesterday playing touch football with the staff, so he’s probably out!

“It’s an interesting match obviously because we’re against the nation of his birth, for whom he’s played passionately. I see that as a great challenge. I think it inspires you to want to do better.

“I think that for someone like Mario it’s going to be exactly the same thing. I think this is probably something that will motivate him to want to do better than ever.”

Michael Cheika Cheika has been keen not to overhype the Wallabies scrum. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Ledesma is about as hands-on as a scrum coach can get, with Wallabies captain Stephen Moore explaining that the ex-Clermont man actually likes to wriggle his way in under the front rows during live scrummaging sessions.

“He’s just looking at where guys’ shoulders are and heads, necks, different angles,” says Moore. “You can probably pick up a lot from that view. He sneaks under there quickly and then pulls out.”

Flanker Michael Hooper was bemused to see Ledesma ducking under during one of his first sessions with the Wallabies.

“I had no idea what he was doing, I just push on the side,” says Hooper. “He was crawling through the middle one day and I was just thinking, ‘what is this guy doing?’

“That was one of the first days in. I thought it was going to collapse, but the boys managed to keep it up.”

Moore explains that Ledesma’s scrum analysis has taken advantage of the excellent overhead camera angles available during this World Cup, with much of their video work focusing on such shots of their angles in the set-piece.

As well as his technical strength Ledesma also possesses a strong mental game, pushing the Wallabies’ forwards to bring an improved mindset to the scrum and generally contributing to the squad morale.

“All Argentinians are pretty emotional I think!” says Hooper with a laugh. “He wants to see us do well, he’s completely adopted our team and wants to see us improve. When he gives so much, you get emotionally attached to it and he’s no different.

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“He’s brought a lot of that passion that probably sometimes Australians don’t have.”

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2011 - Quarter Final - New Zealand v Argentina - Eden Park Ledesma previously worked with Top 14 clubs. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Ledesma’s previous coaching gigs were with Stade Français and Montpellier in the Top 14, as well as with Cheika’s Waratahs, but his English is excellent and the Australia head coach points to Ledesma’s communication as a key strength.

“He’s very good at expressing himself and I know from having coached in foreign languages that it’s one thing speaking the language and it’s another thing actually making your point in a rugby sense, where sometimes you need to get to the heart of the player.

“The language isn’t always the natural translation, but I think Mario has been able to conquer that in his early days in Australia and be able to get to the heart of the players to link the technical with the mental and the passion side as well.”

42-year-old Ledesma has had a major impact on the Wallabies and their scrum, but Cheika recognises the fact that all the good work can be undone if the Pumas have their way in the set-piece tomorrow.

With regular loosehead Scott Sio ruled out, James Slipper faces an important evening’s work. Ledesma himself will know Australia’s scrum has to prove itself in the pressure of a World Cup semi-final.

“I think he’s done very well in that way, but I will say that we are just right in the middle,” says Cheika. “We need to improve massively I feel.”

“I still think that consistency, the improvement, is in us. Making sure that every day at training and every match we play is of the highest quality in those set-pieces, that’s what our goal is.”

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Murray Kinsella

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