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Argentina's Pumas, another animal under Ledesma's leadership

© AFP | Under Mario Ledesma, Argentina are enjoying their best ever Rugby Champoionship campaign with two matches to spare

BUENOS AIRES (AFP) - 

With a year to go ahead of the 2019 World Cup in Japan, Argentina's Pumas are on the prowl, rejuvenated by their rugged former hooker, Mario Ledesma.

Argentina had been little short of awful since the last World Cup, where they reached the semi-finals for the second time.

They had managed just one single victory against a tier one nation, Italy, in almost two years before the start of the Rugby Championship.

But the South Americans have developed a knack of saving their best for the biggest stage and their current form suggests they're building up towards a major tilt in Japan.

With two matches left of the Rugby Championship, they've already broken new ground this season, winning two matches for the first time.

In six previous editions they had finished bottom of the pile five times, and in two of those they lost every match, including last year.

Argentina suffered a dire June campaign where they lost twice at home to Wales before being drubbed by visiting Scotland, conceding 10 tries and almost 100 points in total, after which Daniel Hourcade was replaced by Ledesma.

The team has bounced back in style.

"It's a positive return, very positive. Something's happening in this team, you can sense it," said Ledesma 10 days ago, following a first victory in Australia in 35 years, and first such in the tournament.

"There's a positive fever, and it's contagious!"

Having also beaten South Africa 31-19 at home earlier in the tournament, Argentine spirits are high going into Saturday's reception of mighty New Zealand in Buenos Aires.

A first ever victory over the All Blacks is no longer a fanciful dream.

- 'Great future' -

Ledesma honed his tough playing style in France, where he began his coaching career before developing it in Australia.

"He was fed on French and then Australian rugby. With him, Argentine rugby has a great future," said Andres Courreges, a hooker for the Pumas in the 1980s.

Those coaching positions on foreign shores were as part of the backroom staff, but Ledesma cut his teeth as the head man in a hugely successful six-month stint in charge of the Jaguares, Argentina's sole Super Rugby participant.

The Jaguares recorded a winning campaign and reached the knock-out stages for the first time, at only their third attempt.

It was their ability to come away from tough trips to New Zealand -- against the Chiefs and Blues -- and Australia -- facing the Rebels and Brumbies -- with victories that impressed most.

According to the Argentine coach of French club Agen, Mauricio Reggiardo, Ledesma's 84 caps gained as a Pumas player is what gives him a coaching edge with the national team.

The whole backroom coaching staff are also internationals, "capable of transmitting their values to the players and of being very demanding, and very tough."

"That's the advantage of Mario Ledesma, he's got the Pumas values, but with the experience of having worked in France and Australia."

Reggiardo says Ledesma has instilled some pragmatism in the Argentine game, often full of flair but fragile under pressure.

- 'Honor' -

"They don't play for the sake of playing. They don't play for fun. They play to go forwards," he said.

"That's the way it is. We can score a try from 80 meters out, just as well as we can spend 10 minutes kicking it if that's what the game demands."

Ledesma has helped players tap into the spirit of the last line of the Argentine national anthem, sung before the start of every international match: "we vow to die with glory."

"Whereas once the players were happy just to be wearing the jersey, now they put it on and honor it," added Reggiardo.

When it comes to the World Cup in Japan, a resurgent Argentina will be a worry for their pool rivals, England, and in particular, France.

In the 2007 World Cup in France, Argentina beat the hosts twice on route to their best ever finish of third place.

Only two of the three can qualify from the pool in Japan, and the other two won't be relishing playing a Pumas side on fire.

© 2018 AFP