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Ledesma sends out strong message by dropping big names

OSAKA, Japan (AP) — Mario Ledesma sent a message to his Argentina squad by dropping arguably the most influential player and the former captain for Saturday's must-win Rugby World Cup game against Tonga.

Furthermore, the coach benched flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez and hooker Agustin Creevy without any ego-soothing explanations as to why. Because in the days since last weekend's dramatic 23-21 loss to France, his approach has been all about re-building the squad dynamic rather than pandering to the wounded pride of big-name players.

"The message hasn't changed, not just from this staff, but from any the Pumas have ever had. The key thing in wearing the Pumas' shirt is to do your best," Ledesma said. "Nobody can take it for granted. Everyone who's worn this shirt knows it. That's the name of the game."

Ledesma, a hooker who played 84 times for Argentina, usually talks to players who have been left out and explains to them why. But he felt he needed a change, perhaps sensing something had been lacking in the game against France.

"I believe this week we had to think collectively, as a group," he said. "Until last week we always took the time to talk with those not selected, but this week was different."

Creevy has 12 appearances at the World Cup, while Sanchez has notched a career 102 World Cup points. But neither player is bigger than the Argentine cause — which is to win the next three Pool C games against Tonga, 2003 champion England, and the United States.

Expect Ledesma's players to come out firing early on with some aggressive front-foot rugby at Hanazono Rugby stadium, on the outskirts of Osaka.

It would be the best way for the Pumas to banish the memory of a dismal first-half performance against France, which led 20-3 at the break last Saturday.

"Our mindset (is) very ambitious, perhaps, but we must do what we set out to do," Ledesma said. "Against France, we didn't in the first 40 minutes, so this time we must remain focused and overcome our mistakes. The most dangerous teams are the ones who aren't afraid to make mistakes."

The players made plenty of those against France. So the overall intensity went up a notch this week, especially on the eve of the team announcement.

"(Wednesday's) training session was especially hard because everyone wants to play," captain Pablo Matera said. "There was great frustration and annoyance at the weekend's result and we channeled it into energy, motivation, and improvement."

The loss was particularly galling for the coaches and players because of the massive time spent preparing — and then how quickly everything learned was forgotten.

"It was the longest preparation we have ever gone through in the history of this team. It took many months where we were dedicated to studying every French player, their strengths and weaknesses," Matera said. "Then, we didn't get the result and it was tough, because watching it, it was (our fault) ... We didn't do any of what we had been preparing."

Tonga has had one day less to prepare after losing 35-3 to England in a physical match which resulted in flyhalf Kurt Morath being ruled out of the tournament because of injury.

It deprives Tonga of its strategist, a proven playmaker with the nation's record for World Cup (73) and all-time (340) points. He is replaced by James Faiva, whose five caps have all come in the last two months.

But Ledesma doesn't expect any changes to how Tonga approaches the game.

A Morath-inspired Tonga bossed the Pumas in the first 20 minutes when they met at the World Cup four years ago, but then faded away in a 45-16 loss.

"They have a system which may not always work but is very similar to ours in terms of how the players are structured," Ledesma said. "Any player can make a difference and danger may come from all sides."

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More AP Rugby World Cup: https://www.apnews.com/RugbyWorldCup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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