Rugby has Argentina’s attention ahead of World Cup semifinal

LONDON (AP) Diego Maradona made a promise to the Pumas as they all danced in the dressing room celebrating a group-stage win, saying he’d be back to watch them in the Rugby World Cup semifinals.

Surprising to some, the football great should be there at Twickenham when Argentina takes on two-time champion Australia on Sunday for a spot in the final.

No country has ever reached the World Cup finals in both soccer and rugby, so World Cup winner Maradona might be a good luck charm for the Pumas.

Argentina’s run through the tournament was quite a revelation for many rugby followers, particularly the stunning opening spell in the 43-20 win over Six Nations champion Ireland in the quarterfinals. Regular exposure to tests against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa in the Rugby Championship has made the Pumas more competitive, and more expansive in their style – resulting in 26 tries so far, second only to the All Blacks.

Australia coach Michael Cheika was among those who saw the Pumas coming.

”We expected it totally,” he said. ”We see them on a regular basis. We’re not surprised at all by their position here. We’ve been preparing.”

Among the assistants he has hired since taking the Wallabies job a year ago is scrum doctor Mario Ledesma, who played 84 tests for Argentina as a hooker. He has steadily shored up an Australian scrum that was humiliated by England this time last year, but returned the insult by knocking the tournament hosts out of the World Cup.

Both teams have a tendency to run the ball whenever possible – the Pumas dispensing with their old 10-man game plan and embracing a style that is traditional for the Wallabies – but the scrum could hold the key to determining the winner at Twickenham.

The Pumas pride themselves on the power of their set-piece, an area where Ledesma’s insight can further help the Australians.

Wallabies captain Stephen Moore has seen Ledesma’s impact from close range; the 100-test veteran has set scrums in practice and seen the Argentine slide into the tunnel to see how things are going.

”You can probably pick up a lot from that view,” Moore said, shaking his head and smiling. ”He sneaks under there quickly and pulls out.

”It’s a good reason to keep (the front row) off the ground – we don’t want to lose him.”

The Wallabies have lost only five of their 24 tests against Argentina and naturally start as favorites, despite being only two minutes away from a quarterfinal exit last weekend. Bernard Foley landed a last-minute penalty, contentiously awarded for offside, for a 35-34 win over Scotland. After being the form team of the group stage, the Australians enter the last four on the shakiest ground.

The return of No. 8 David Pocock will strengthen the backrow, and Australia’s turnover potential, but the loss of loosehead prop Scott Sio to an injured elbow is a setback in the frontrow. James Slipper, a 72-test veteran, moves into the starting lineup to replace Sio, and will be desperate to make amends for the pass he threw that led to an intercept try that gave Scotland a lead with five minutes to play last week.

Israel Folau overcame the ankle problem that sidelined him for the quarterfinal, and should add some size and pace to the backline, particularly in the counterattack.

Argentina will be at full strength after captain Agustin Creevy was passed fit following a leg injury and outside center Marcelo Bosch returned from suspension, while Martin Landajo was picked again to start at scrumhalf over Tomas Cubelli.

Much has been made of the improvements in Argentina’s game under Daniel Hourcade, who has guided the Pumas in the Rugby Championship. They beat Australia 21-17 in Mendoza last year – Argentina’s first ever in the tournament – and this season enjoyed a first win ever against South Africa, over there too.

Argentina beat France twice in 2007 to finish third, but that was with a different generation of players – only center Juan Martin Hernandez and flanker Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe remain – and a game revolving around scrums, rucks, mauls and kicks. The Pumas were knocked out in the quarterfinals by eventual champion New Zealand in 2011.

”We have arrived in a better way because of four years playing in the Rugby Championship – not only for our game but mentally, too,” Hourcade said. ”We know how strong the Australian defense is but that doesn’t mean we can’t score points against them. My team has the skill to cause damage to any team.”