Gutsy Pumas endure 'epic adventure' to play in Tri Nations

Sydney (AFP) –


Argentina's build-up for the Tri Nations has been hellish, with months of coronavirus bubbles and lockdowns, players testing positive for Covid-19 and a lack of match-time badly hampering preparations.

But relaxed coach Mario Ledesma insists it has all been worth it and his players cannot wait to see action in Australia, where the troubled tournament, minus South Africa, kicks off at the weekend.

"I'm really proud of the boys, the way they have stayed positive, training with a lot of attitude, staying humble and feeling really privileged to be here and able to play with everything that's going on in our country," he said.

"A little bit of what we're doing is for them back home."

Argentina has been one of the world's worst-hit countries by coronavirus, surpassing one million cases last week, with more than 26,000 deaths.

Getting to Australia has been a long and difficult journey for the Pumas as they prepare to face the All Blacks on November 14 in Sydney, their first Test since the World Cup in Japan last year, where they failed to go beyond the group phase.

The Rugby Championship, rebranded the Tri Nations after the world champion Springboks pulled out citing a lack of preparation and match time, begins Saturday when Australia face New Zealand.

More than a dozen Argentine players and staff have tested positive to Covid-19 in recent months, including Ledesma, just one of multiple obstacles they have had to endure.

"We did a bubble, we got 15 positive cases, the bubble was gone," Ledesma said.

"Then we started training again -- and again positive cases. Then we went to Uruguay and then here.

"Our boys haven't done one real scrum in seven or eight months against a proper opposition." he added. "They've just been scrummaging and playing against themselves.

"I don't know rugby-wise (how the players will go), but mentally I think it really got us in a very good spot."

- 'Pumped, excited' -

The squad only recently emerged from a mandatory 14-day isolation in Australia and with several players nursing minor injuries a planned warm-up game against a NSW XI last weekend was called off.

Another 13 Europe-based players only arrived in Sydney last week, meaning they remain in lockdown and will only get out days before their opening game, with the full 45-man squad yet to train together.

"We're living kind of an epic adventure here, it's pretty special," admitted Ledesma.

With Australia and New Zealand already battle-hardened after two bruising Bledisloe Cup Tests and domestic Super Rugby seasons, Ledesma knows his team faces a daunting challenge.

In a bid to get up to speed, the team recruited former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika -- who quit after last year's disappointing World Cup -- as a consultant.

He and Ledesma worked together with the Australian team from 2015-2017 when Cheika enlisted the Argentine to help improve the forwards pack and they have remained good friends.

"It's been really good for me and for the staff," Ledesma said of Cheika's involvement.

"We have a very young group of players too and Cheika is someone that believes a lot in himself.

"He's pumped, he's excited. He hasn't coached rugby union in a while ... he's doing a bit of everything. He is somebody who has a lot of experience."

Rusty Argentina, who finished bottom of the four-team Rugby Championship last year, may need all the help they can get.