Sport Rugby

Friday 23 March 2018

Cheika's united nations primed to halt Argentina

Australia's rugby team coach Michael Cheika
Australia's rugby team coach Michael Cheika
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The name Mario Ledesma has been uttered so often at the Lensbury Hotel this week that it is likely to echo around the place for a while to come.

The presence of an Argentinian great in the midst of the Wallaby back-room team has attracted plenty of understandable focus, but Michael Cheika insists that the man charged with changing the fortunes of the most maligned set-piece in international rugby had no mixed loyalties.

"He's not playing!" an exasperated Cheika exclaimed when Ledesma's role came up yet again yesterday, but it was Stephen Moore's explanation of how the former Puma great fits into the role that perhaps best summed up this Wallaby outfit.

"I haven't really noticed that he's been any different to any of the other coaches. He's just part of our team now, one of us," the hooker explained.

"When you look at our team, we've got guys from a Fijian background, Tongan, Samoan, my folks are Irish, Cheiks comes from a different background as well.

"We're from all over the place. I guess the important thing is that we're all tied in to the same approach and values. Mario's no different, he's part of that."

Amid funny stories of how Ledesma likes to lie under the scrum-set like a mechanic working on a car to get a better appreciation of the angles, there is a real edge to his role this week.

Scott Sio, the first-choice loosehead, is out with an elbow injury and there is a fear that his replacement James Slipper might struggle. Australia's scrum creaked against Scotland, having dominated against England, and nobody will come after the scent of weakness like the Pumas scrum.

For all that the running rugby of outside backs like Joaquin Tuculet and Juan Imhoff grabbed the headlines last week, the pack did some damage to a respected and experienced Irish pack and will look to do the same.

And we all know what Argentina can do with front-foot ball. Only the All Blacks have scored more tries at this World Cup than the Pumas.

One presumes the Wallabies won't defend as narrowly or with such little line-speed as Joe Schmidt's side did against the Argentinians in Cardiff, but they have had three hard games at Twickenham over the last three weekends and their fitness and endurance will be tested.

There are question marks over the fitness of Israel Folau and David Pocock, who both trained yesterday, having sat out most of the week's sessions.

The full-back has been below his brilliant best at this tournament and his ankle problem is a worry. Expect Nicolas Sanchez to test him out early on tomorrow as Argentina look to exploit their strength in the air as they did against Ireland.

Daniel Hourcade welcomes Marcelo Bosch back after his one-week ban. The centre strengthens the backline and adds a long-distance goal-kicking threat to the weapons in the Puma armoury.

They have beaten Australia in recent times too and won't have any fear, but there is a nagging sense that last weekend was Argentina's emotional high-point and that the Wallabies will have that bit too much for them.

Much will come down to Bernard Foley's ability to control the game with the help of Matt Giteau, while the twin threats of Pocock and Michael Hooper can counter the excellent work the Pumas did at the breakdown last week. Stopping Pablo Matera getting over the gainline will be key.

As Ireland found, backing up an emotionally charged performance can be a difficult ask in seven days and Australia have more improvement to make after needing a controversial referee's call to beat Scotland.

They have not matched the performance they produced to beat England three weeks ago, but if they can coax a performance out of their walking wounded then a final is within their grasp.

Verdict: Australia

Australia - I Folau; A Ashley-Cooper, T Kuridrani, M Giteau, D Mitchell; B Foley, W Genia; J Slipper, S Moore (capt), S Kepu; K Douglas, R Simmons; S Fardy, M Hooper, D Pocock. Reps: T Polota-Nau, T Smith, G Holmes, D Mumm, B McCalman, N Phipps, M Toomua, K Beale.

Argentina - J Tuculet, S Cordero, M Bosch, JM Hernandez, J Imhoff; N Sanchez, M Landajo; M Ayerza, A Creevy (Capt), R Herrera; G Petti, T Lavanini; P Matera, JM Fernandez Lobbe, L Senatore. Reps: J Montoya, L Noguera, J Figallo, M Alemanno, F Isa, T Cubelli, J De La Fuente, L Gonzalez Amorosino

Ref - W Barnes (England)

Australia v Argentina,

Live, TV3/ITV, tomorrow, 4.0

Irish Independent

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