independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Ireland secure elite status in thrilling seven-try romp

The bad news? Ireland were careless yesterday. They started with an error – Jonny Sexton over-egging his first kick, unforgivably, straight into touch.

Twice after scoring converted tries, they gifted Argentina cheap, scoreable penalties, lapses that would have had the most temperate of coaches tearing their hair out in frustration. They ended sloppily too, shipping two tries in the last four minutes of the game. Shocking stuff, really.

But there was compensation. Bucketloads of it. Ireland scored seven tries – seven! – and they won 46-24, not quite double figures but not far off. They made light of some tricky-looking pre-match permutations, preserving not just their status as second-tier seeds in next month's World Cup draw, but making a mockery of the fact that Argentina entered yesterday's Test ranked a place ahead of them in seventh.

To understand how improbable it all was, consider the fact that in their previous five Tests – excluding last week's no-capper against Fiji – Ireland had managed a grand total of two tries. Yesterday they had matched that by the 15th minute and eclipsed it just after the first quarter had elapsed.

They routed Argentina in the scrum, cleaned them in the lineout, bamboozled them with a succession of sweet backline moves. At times, it was beautiful to watch.

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For sure it begged questions. Ireland could never dominate Argentina so thoroughly in the physical exchanges without us at least wondering just how heavily a long, hard season was weighing on the visitors. Towards the end of a commendable maiden voyage in the Rugby Championship, the Pumas had noticeably begun to taper and two tough recent outings against Wales and France had arguably left them over the top.

But they were reluctant to trot out any excuses afterwards, tiredness or otherwise. "It's not an excuse," Pumas coach Santiago Phelan said conclusively. "We were in good shape for the game." Beside him captain Juan Fernandez Lobbe nodded in agreement. "We were fresh for it. It's a sad way for us to finish but the team that wanted it most, won it."

The team who needed it most delivered. Ireland got a shade lucky early on when Nicolas Sanchez's well-struck penalty canonned back off the post and within a few minutes the home side had worked their way up the other end where Craig Gilroy, making the kind of debut that eulogies are composed about, danced through four static defenders to shift Ireland into gear.

It wasn't his memorable try that made Gilroy's performance so eye-catching: it was the hunger he showed to grab every opportunity he could to run at defenders, the confidence he exuded throughout, the strength he invariably found to break the initial tackle at the very least.

On his own he was wonderful; the electricity of his combination with Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo, three tries between them, was a sumptuous bonus.

You knew the Ulster wing, somehow not an automatic Heineken Cup starter for his province, had had a special day when Declan Kidney had to try hard to play his contribution down afterwards, emphasising the collective every chance he got. "It's not about one player," the Ireland coach said, taking a fire extinguisher to the hype. "I thought 1 to 15 did really well. They talked last night about having a go at it and the confidence ran through the team." It is on days like these – when the sheer emotion can transport people into the clouds – that Kidney is a good man to have at the top table.

After the summer drubbing in New Zealand, Kidney had gathered his troops in a room at the Aviva and let them hammer things out between themselves. Yesterday, he argued, was the first signs of a response, but still nothing to get carried away with.

It was just one of those days, he said. Nearly everything just fell their way. "Never in your wildest dreams do you think you'll score that number of tries against Argentina. If things clicked, I knew they were capable of delivering. Today was one of the good days. I wasn't too despondent after South Africa and I won't get too excited after this. It just makes it a whole lot easier to go to training the next day."

So the Ireland players will decamp to their provinces, smiles on their faces, hoping for a good winter. While for Kidney there is the still formidable task of building on the rich promise shown yesterday and, with England and France to visit Dublin next spring, to make a decent stab at clinching another Grand Slam.

Okay, maybe that's getting carried away a bit, but while the tries were falling like rain in Lansdowne Road yesterday and a big Argentina pack was being roughed up like errant corner boys, it was hard to remain sober.

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