Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Mario Ledesma - Legendary Career coming to a close

One of the all time greats of international rugby is Argentine veteran hooker, Mario Ledesma. Incredibly, he made his international debut fifteen years ago in tests vs Uruguay and Canada in September 1996. As of July 2011, Ledesma has played 78 test matches for Argentina. His time in Argentine colors spans twenty years as Ledesma was an Argentine under 19 and student international for his country. His career will come to a close in October this year as Ledesma will retire after Rugby World Cup 2011. He is to join Paris side Stade Français in a coaching postion where he will link up with Pumas loosehead prop, Rodrigo Roncero. Ledessma together with Roncero and Martín Scelzo, formed what was considered the best front row at Rugby World Cup 2007. The trio tackled endlessly in the history making 17-12 win over France to open the tournament and were the first choice combination until the semi final clash against South Africa.

Ledesma has been a regular player for Argentina throughout his career but has not played as many internationals as players from other countries due to the low quantity of matches Argentina plays in comparison to other first tier teams. He would likely be the world record holder should Argentina play as many matches as sides such as Australia, Ireland, South Africa or Wales. He, nonetheless, has done just about it all. he captained Los Pumas in an international match vs Japan in 1998 but more importantly has been a part of Argentina in virtually every single one of the sides important triumph´s in the professional era. Ledesma started at hooker in Argentina´s 18-16 win over Australia in 1997. The Australian side, which would go on to win the Rugby World Cup two years latter was a star-studies side featuring players including Stephen Larkham, Ben Tune, Tim Horan, Joe Roff, George Gregan, Richard Harry, Andrew Blades, Owen Finegan and captain John Eales. Having made the hooker position his own he went on to satart in all five of Argentina´s matches at Rugby World Cup 1999. His performaces vs Wales, Samoa, Japan, Ireland and France led critics to say he was the best hooker in the tournament.

In 2000 Ledesma played only one test for Argentina, the classic 37-33 loss to South Africa in Buenos Aires, with Federico Mendez being prefered at the time as the starting hooker. He was on the bench for Argentina´s games the following year and came on as a replacement in the history making 30-16 win over Wales at the Millenium Stadium and the narrow last second 24-20 loss to New Zealand in Buenos Aires. Ledesma fearured in the wis over France in 2002 and 2003 and the 26-25 last minute loss to South Africa. After impressing vs Fiji, the USA and Canada Ledesma was chosen to start vs Australia to open Rugby World Cup 2003. His performance, however, was below par which saw him start only one more match in the tournament, vs Romania. 2004, however, proved to be the turning point as Ledesma won back the Pumas 2 shirt permanently and retains it today, seven years latter. Ledesma was a standout in Argentina´s 24-14 win over France in Marseilles which was the first time France had ever lost a match there. In 2005 Ledesma stared in the 25-25 draw vs the British and Irish Lions as well as the away victories over Italy and Scotland. Perhaps the most noteworthy performance of his career by 2006 was Argentina´s 25-18 win over England at Twickenham. He would also taste a home win vs England in 2009 but it was all surpassed by France 2007 with Ledesma at age 34 being one of the best hookers at the tournament and outplaying fancied players from elite sides including France, Ireland and Scotland.

He has been a professional player at the top level in France for a decade. Like many of the players from the 1999 team, Ledesma went on to play in Europe at the elite level. Ledesma arrived in France in 2001 to play for Narbonne on a two year contract. he then moved to Castres where he stayed until the end of the 2005 season before joining Clermont for whom he played over 100 matches for as the clubs first choice hooker over a six year period. During his time at Clermont, Ledesma played in four French championship finals from 2007-2010, losing the first three before winning in 2010 in what was Clermont´s first ever French championship. His seven year stint at the club has seen him win lots of supporters with the locals taking him in as one of their own.

Aged 38, Ledesma, is likely to be the oldest player at Rugby World Cup 2011 and will certainly be Argentina´s oldest player. Despite not having age on his side, Ledesma continues to be a top performer as he demonstrated for Clermont in the 2010-2011 season putting in big hits, acting as a solid ball carrier, scrumaging well and providing clean ball in the lineouts. He heads into New Zealand 2011 well into the twilight of his career but will stil have what it takes to go up against the best in the business.

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