Saturday 21 September 2019

Pumas are up to old tricks as they look to rebuild their scrum

Set-piece is now a shadow of the once-formidable unit

Former Argentina hooker, and current Pumas head coach, Mario Ledesma battles Ireland in a maul during the 2007 World Cup game. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Former Argentina hooker, and current Pumas head coach, Mario Ledesma battles Ireland in a maul during the 2007 World Cup game. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

When front-rows of a certain vintage talk about packing down against Argentina, a certain awe comes over them.

For so long, the scrum was the bedrock of the Pumas' approach; the foundation from which they propelled themselves from relative obscurity to the upper echelons of the international game.

Now, having established themselves as one of the core nations on the global circuit, their scrum has deserted them and threatens their competitiveness like no other area.

Away to New Zealand in the recent Rugby Championship, the Pumas faced a glorious opportunity.

Already without Beauden Barrett, the All Blacks lost Brodie Retallick and Ngani Laumape early in the first half and the brilliant Argentinian attack make 14 clean breaks, beating 30 defenders.

At times, they had the world champions in real trouble but when they needed solidity their scrum let them down, with debutant loosehead prop Karl Tu'inukuafe causing havoc.

His success handed the ruthless New Zealanders possession in positions from which they invariably score. A golden opportunity turned into a routine 46-24 defeat.

"We got torn apart so we need to get better there," Argentina's new coach Mario Ledesma said of the scrum. "It's been the same for the last couple of years. Unfortunately other teams go hard at us because they consider us really strong."

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A former hooker, Ledesma got plenty of credit for the way he turned Australia's scrum around when working under Michael Cheika.

He only took over in August, but had been in charge of the Jaguares team that reached the quarter-finals of Super Rugby for the first time this season.

And it has been noticeable to watch Ledesma evolve the Argentinian scrum back towards the once-feared 'Bajada' technique of old, with the second-rows binding on the outside of the props in an attempt to channel the pressure through the hooker.

Mike Ross outlined the technique in his recently-published autobiography, 'Dark Arts'.

"It was pioneered by a man, Dr Francesco Ocampo, who had a love of physics and scrummaging and brought the two very different sciences together," Ross wrote.

"He saw no reason why the scrum couldn't be built into a devastating weapon.

"The 'Bajada' is all about eight men making themselves one single, powerful arrow. It began in the San Isidro club. Then it transferred itself to the Pumas and became central to their personality.

"Locks don't bind by putting their arms through the legs of props, they bind instead around the props' hips. The props are pinned inwards towards the hooker."

Earlier this week, Keith Wood recalled the experiencing of feeling the weight of the Argentinian eight coming down on his shoulders.

"It's no fun," he told 'Off the Ball'.

"I'm 6ft tall and when all of the pressure is coming down on you - I was never the most flexible man in the world - but it was quite frightening really."

Ireland have taken note.

"The locks are binding differently," scrum coach Greg Feek said.

"They still have that mentality. They have had a lot of changes. They have tried to blood in a few guys over the last 12 months as well and I see a potential long-term plan there.

"Development is not overnight, it takes a good three years to establish some guys, particularly up front."

The decision to omit giant Stade Francais tighthead Ramiro Herrera from the squad this week is a statement that Ledesma wants to back his home-grown options.

Herrrera anchored the scrum in his country's famous quarter-final win over Ireland three years ago, providing the foundation for Marcos Ayerza to attack Ross.

"All my worst fears through the long night that preceded it came through in the very first scrum of the game," he wrote.

"They shunted us. It set the tone for the remainder of the game and although we recovered in the scrums that followed and won a couple of penalties ourselves we were on the back-foot after their very first hit."

Cian Healy, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong are unlikely to experience the same levels of pressure this Saturday evening, but with Ledesma in charge it won't be long before they're back firing.

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