LONDON — During a 17-year winning run between 1997 and 2014, Australia might have been tempted to rest their two star players against Argentina.
Michael Cheika’s selection gamble over No 8 David Pocock and full-back Israel Folau is testament to the new wave of South American rugby, with the Pumas plotting to redefine the old world order.
Australia delayed their team announcement by eight hours on Friday, before finally deciding to roll the dice and come out fully loaded — but not necessarily fully fit — in the Twickenham semi-final.
“Am I surprised that Argentina are in the semi-final?” said Cheika. “No, not at all. We see them on a regular basis so we’re not surprised at all about their position. This is a World Cup semi-final so it’s not like we’re keeping anyone back for next week.”
Australia’s Argentine scrum doctor known as “Super Mario” — heralded as the brains behind their newfound set-piece strength — prayed he would never have to plot his home country’s downfall.
Mario Ledesma was capped 84 times before taking over as Wallabies forwards coach in July — employing abstract techniques in training such as lying underneath the scrum — and tomorrow’s semi-final will be a serious case of split loyalties for the 42-year-old.
“He’s one of us,” insisted Australia skipper Stephen Moore. “If you look at our team, we’ve got guys from Fiji, Tonga, Samoa. My folks are Irish and Michael Cheika comes from a different background. We’re from all over the place, but we’re all tied into the same approach and the same values.”
The absence of prop Scott Sio with an elbow injury is a blow to Australia’s set-piece, with the experienced James Slipper slotting in to Cheika’s starting XV.
Ledesma has transformed Australia’s scrum from a weakness to a weapon by engineering a change in attitude — even encouraging the backs to observe training drills.
He caught the forwards by surprise when he got down on all fours and crawled through the middle of the scrum during one session, but Moore agrees with the methods behind his madness.
“He’s looking at where the guys’ shoulders, necks and heads are,” said Moore. “There are different angles and he can probably pick up a lot from that view. He sort of sneaks under there quickly and pulls out.
“It’s a good reason to keep the scrum off the ground, that’s for sure! One thing that’s been great at this World Cup is the cameras on top of the scrums — we use those angles a lot in our reviews.”
Ledesma has kept a low profile this week, requesting not to do media interviews to avoid inevitable questions about divided loyalties.
The passionate Latino will have to bite his tongue during tomorrow’s national anthems, but Cheika has no doubts that he is focused on Australia’s progression to the final — even if it denies Argentina of their greatest ever victory.
“It’s an interesting match because we’re against his country of birth, who he played passionately for,” said Cheika. “I see that as a great challenge. It’s like playing against your old team.
“Going into battle against the guys you’ve been with for many years inspires you to be better. With someone like Mario it will be exactly the same. It’s something that will motivate him to do better than he’s ever done before.”
Argentina pride themselves on an aggressive scrum and their set-piece was boosted yesterday when influential hooker Agustin Creevy passed an 11th hour fitness test.
While Pumas have traditionally boasted a powerful scrum, their new generation is defined by a back-line that has made substantial improvements since joining the Rugby Championship.
They have made more carries and beaten more defenders beaten than the three other semi-finalists, selling a brand of rugby that even drew Diego Maradona to their Pool Test against Tonga. The return of centre Marcelo Bosch will further boost the midfield but the trick, according to scrum-half Tomas Cubelli, is their amateur Latino spirit.
“In every Argentinian team you learn to play with heart,” said Cubelli. “Rugby in Argentina is amateur. In most of the clubs you are educated as a good person, a good team-mate, and afterwards as a good player. We might not have fantastic resources but we have great human resources — that’s what we have and we have to do that well.”