Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Jaguares head coach MARIO LEDESMA talks about his time with the Wallabies, embracing a fresh challenge in Argentina and his take on the state of South African rugby.
Sport24 asked: How would you sum up your three years with the Wallabies?
Mario Ledesma: It was great and taught me much of the good stuff I know as a coach today. I moved to Australia to develop as a coach and I spent my time trying to learn about all facets of the game. I tried to be as permeable as possible to take in all the good stuff I encountered and suck it all down. It helped that I had quality coaches by my side. It was a great experience not only from the rugby side of things but in terms of the human aspect as well. I built strong relationships and learned improved ways to communicate with players. It’s hard to say who would be the best fit to take over my role as Wallaby assistant coach. Laurie Fisher has been linked but he’s working at the Brumbies and I don’t know how much of a scrum and lineout specialist he is. The role I vacated is one that is more set-piece orientated, so I don’t know who will take the post. (Jono Gibbes and Nick Stiles have also been mentioned in dispatches as being in the running for the coveted position). I hope Michael Cheika makes the best decision for Australia and I wish him the best. I am really grateful for the time I spent with Michael at the Waratahs and Wallabies. He was very generous with his knowledge and shared everything with me. He treated me like his younger brother and I cannot thank him enough.
Sport24 asked: Why did you decide to accept the Jaguares head coaching post?
Mario Ledesma: I had been away from Argentina for 18 years and really wanted to return home. I thought it was the perfect chance to do so by taking the Jaguares coaching position. Coaching the Jaguares is obviously not the easiest challenge and it hasn’t been a smooth path for us (the Jaguares have started the season with consecutive defeats in South Africa) but what I have learned from Michael over the last couple of years has helped me. I don’t know if it will assist me in conquering the challenge but I believe I have the necessary tools to coach, not only from a technical point of view but also from a leadership position. We only started as a group in the second week of January, so we are somewhat behind everybody else. We are the only team that had all of their players playing on the end-of-year tour. We accepted that challenge, so I wasn’t surprised by it, but it’s difficult to change everything - your game plan, attack, defence and set-piece - in one and a half months. But the beauty of it lies in tackling the challenge and trying to overcome it. My coaching experiences (in the north and south) have been invaluable and have not only made me the coach but the man I am today. You never know when chances are going to come up and I felt it (the Jaguares top job) was a really good opportunity for me to move forward in my professional coaching career.
Sport24 asked: What are your aspirations and expectations for the Jaguares?
Mario Ledesma: With the materials and resources we have at our disposal, I believe we should be aiming for the play-offs. However, in a competition as tough as Super Rugby you never know. Right now we are trying to set up our game plan and develop our identity and team culture. The progression for us will be in terms of process and that will bring the results. I really believe in making a team work hard and teaching them how to transcend themselves. There are many styles of rugby but if you are not a hard worker you cannot compete and win. You don’t have to be a genius to understand that when you throw away so many opportunities (like we did against the Stormers in the first half) and you had as many handling errors as we did, it becomes difficult to win. We have to brush up on our handling, keep believing and learn to take our opportunities. If we keep working hard and are confident, I believe we will turn the corner. In terms of our on-field discipline, I think it comes down to confidence and role clarity. If your role is clear, you are not inclined to be so ill-disciplined. However, when you start confusing yourself everything becomes unclear. Things start going pear-shaped when your confidence is down and you are trying to do somebody else’s job. We are working tirelessly on our game plan, skills and role clarity. Hopefully in a couple of games’ time we’ll see that paying off. Coming in, I have definitely found the players to be very receptive to mine and the whole coaching staff’s message. Despite the recent results, it’s been really positive and the players have been working hard. Hopefully things are going to start turning around in the short term.
Sport24 asked: Are you eyeing a Pumas coaching gig at the 2019 World Cup?
Mario Ledesma: It’s my first time as a head coach, so I have been dealing with stuff I never knew I would have to. Right now I’m really busy and don’t have the headspace to be thinking about next year. For now, I’m really concentrating on the Jaguares and not really thinking about being part of Los Pumas coaching staff at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. However, as far as our national and Super Rugby team is concerned, I believe we should unify criteria in terms of tackle and ruck technique, catch-and-pass and the way in which we defend. Then if you kick a little bit more or if you play more of an expansive game, I don’t think that makes a difference because what cements everything is the skill. We are really focusing on improving our skills and that will definitely go a long way with the Pumas. (Los Pumas head coach) Daniel Hourcade affords us plenty of freedom at the Jaguares. I’ve had a couple of chats with him before the start of the season but right now we have autonomy in terms of our decisions at Super Rugby level, so it’s really good. It’s great that we have a Super Rugby franchise and it was a dream come true when it came to pass in 2015. However, in saying that we are somewhat limited by the number of players that can play Super Rugby. It would be great if we could have two teams from Argentina competing in Super Rugby. The challenge is that we are trying to bring depth to Argentinian rugby but only have 35-40 players playing Super Rugby. The reality is that we have the players that we have got and have to make the most of it. If players such as Facundo Isa, Juan Imhoff, Juan Pablo Estelles, Mariano Galarza and Juan Figallo want to come back, I will be happy to take them but right now that is not a reality as they are playing in Europe. Those players are obviously world-class and are first-choices in good rugby clubs abroad. If we can count on them in the future it will be positive. However, for now there is a regulation in place and the UAR has decided to only pick from home-based players, so that’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s going to go. If they change the laws of selection, only then we can start thinking about that.
Sport24 asked: What is your assessment of the state of South African rugby?
Mario Ledesma: Over the last few years there has been a lot of movement within South African rugby. It’s difficult to throw out any opinions without knowing what is really going on but there has been plenty of chopping and changing. I don’t think instability is a good basis on which to build. I hope for South African rugby’s sake that they will find their stability. However, owing to the way South Africans feel about and live their rugby, I’m not worried about their future. When you tour South Africa and turn on the TV, rugby matches are on almost 24/7. It’s impressive to witness the level of talent in the Varsity Cup, which I watched closely when I was recently in South Africa. South Africa also boasts the Currie Cup (the oldest provincial rugby competition in the world) and four strong Super Rugby participants. Last Saturday, we played against what I think is the best team in South Africa. The Lions have been dominating the conference for the last couple of years. They remain really confident despite the fact that they have lost their mentor in Johan Ackermann. I believe that momentum will last for a few months and maybe later they are going to try to find a different way but, right now from what I have seen from them, the Lions are exactly the same animal. The Lions really believe in what they are doing and they play the same way against any team in Super Rugby. Physically, the Lions are one of the toughest teams to come up against in South African rugby. It’s not only due to their size and power but because they are fit and well-conditioned.
Sport24 asked: Who is the world’s best hooker and how has the role evolved?
Mario Ledesma: There is currently a good generation of hookers, and right now I think that Malcolm Marx is leading the way. He is closely followed by New Zealand’s Dane Coles and our very own Agustin Creevy. Marx is the premier hooker at the moment because he is an all-round player. He’s very effective at the set-piece and runs like a loose forward with the ball. He also defends well, steals the balls in the rucks and is strong over the ball. When I was still playing, the role of the hooker already started changing, and in the early 2000s you had to play like a supplementary loose forward. What has changed is how fit, strong and clinical the players have become and how they concentrate on each and every detail of their game. Most notably, the physical side of things has changed more than the technical aspect of the oval game. I wouldn’t be able to handle the physicality at the age of 44 (Ledesma retired in 2011) but would have loved to have measured myself against the young bulls.
Sport24 asked: Are you surprised by Agustin Pichot’s ascent at World Rugby?
Mario Ledesma: No. It doesn’t come as a surprise to me personally or for us within Argentinian rugby. I have known him since I was six and he was five years old. My father used to play rugby with his father and we used to go on holidays together from a young age. I knew that big things were waiting for him. It’s great for Argentinian rugby, being a small nation in the rugby world, to have a vice-president of World Rugby. Hopefully, and surely, one day he will become World Rugby president because he has taken to his new world like a fish to water. I don’t think Agustin has a limit and he will accomplish big things - not only in rugby but outside of the game. If ex-rugby players are intelligent like Agustin, then I’m in favour of them fulfilling administrative roles because their rugby knowledge and wits can prove a winning combination. It doesn’t mean that because you were a great player you will automatically become a great politician, but if you boast the ability to tick both boxes then it’s fantastic. Agustin definitely does. I hope the decisions he makes will benefit Argentinean rugby going forward but he’s obviously thinking about the best interests of world rugby.
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