Young guns set Ireland alight
Dynamic duo Gilroy and Zebo provide catalyst to seal World Cup ranking with ruthless dismissal of below-par Argentina
THE doomsayers were exposed, once again, as false prophets. Ireland rose, defiant and aggressive, to the challenge of securing a top-eight ranking and did so with style on Saturday.
Argentina were awful. That cannot be overlooked. This was a game fraught with danger for Ireland, but the players – and indeed management – looked potential disaster in the face and came up smiling in front of a nervous yet expectant crowd.
The game was mere minutes old when we knew this was an Ireland team in determined mood.
Nicholas Sanchez's second-minute penalty came back off the post to deny Argentina what could have been the rallying call they needed and instead Ireland took control, surged up the field with determination and scored the game's opening try to secure the upper hand.
But before we get carried away with the performance and result, we have always known that Ireland are capable of these one-off performances. We need but reference that magnificent morning when coffee was replaced by something stronger as we collectively toasted the achievement of defeating Australia in the World Cup.
It was a magnificent moment in history. Unfortunately, moments like that have been conspicuously absent since then.
The statistic of Ireland winning a mere 14 games since 2010 and only four of them being against heavyweights is one that certainly deserved airing last week and it still weighs heavily. Was Saturday's result an anomaly or a sign that this squad has turned a corner?
Until Ireland can put a consistent run of positive results together question marks will remain. And that's the most frustrating thing about this group of players. When they're good, they're downright irresistible.
They take clever lines, take the ball on at pace, break through tackles, offload beautifully and can cut most opposition to shreds. This they did fantastically well on Saturday.
The poor start – Sexton's kick-off – belied a superiority they went on to punch home with seven brilliant tries that reflected the ruthless efficiency with which they ripped through Argentina's defence to profit from a consistent supply of quick, clean possession.
The catalyst for a performance of real merit was the impact of the precocious Craig Gilroy. The youthful winger galvanised an Irish backline that was not recognisable from the combination that laboured against South Africa.
Where Ireland were pedestrian and predictable two weeks ago, they were now vigorous and inventive. Gilroy inserted himself into the action in all manner of situations, helping to add to Argentina's confusion as Ireland dazzled them with slick passing movements and dynamic running.
The Ulsterman was a revelation, adding to the favourable impression he created a week previously against Fiji. He disco-danced his way with an explosive run past several defenders to open Ireland's account in the 11th minute and his success had a palpable effect on the team as a whole.
In this endeavour, Gilroy was more than ably assisted by the equally dynamic Simon Zebo. This explosion of youthful exuberance was clearly the impetus Ireland needed to unlock their undoubted potential.
With Gilroy glistening diamond-bright, Ireland sparkled, parading a whole range of intuitive and imaginative moves with the ball in hand. There were cross-overs, loops, slick reverse passes – witness Conor Murray's gorgeous pass off the back of his hands in the build-up to Zebo's try – and the graph of Ireland's confidence rose perceptibly to maintain pace with their ambition.
It was all entirely exhilarating but, of necessity, must be assessed against due allowance for Argentina's lack of intensity. They came to the end of a long tour in Dublin and the signs were unmistakable.
We had expected a South American tornado but instead were visited by a gentle zephyr. The raw physicality which is to Argentinian rugby what oxygen is to most others was uncharacteristically missing. Without it they were bullied by Ireland's determined and well-balanced pack; beaten in all phases, they coursed around the pitch without purpose, with little commitment.
Acknowledgement of Argentina's shortcomings should not, however, diminish the very positive work of Ireland; their professional execution of the many structured activities that make rugby such an exciting game.
Ireland enjoyed 70pc possession in the first half when they surged to make the game safe and such a generous share of the ball reflected the powerful work of the inspirational Donnacha Ryan and his driven colleagues.
Ryan's reward was the official man-of-the-match gong and while he was hugely deserving of the honour, in truth, it could have gone to any of three or four Irish players. Nobody would have blinked had Gilroy, Jonathan Sexton or Chris Henry been the recipient. There was no questioning that Ireland were the better team.
Sexton and Murray formed a very fluid and effective partnership and from the platform afforded them by their forwards – Jamie Heaslip was understated but sometimes true leadership is letting others take the limelight and he had his pack well drilled and marching to the one beat – Ireland were magnificent.
Argentina are usually as subtle as a blow to the head and build their ambitions on winning the physical battle but, as Bustos' petulant ball-throw highlighted, they were impotent in the face of Ireland's almost manic determination to welcome winter with a smile instead of the grimace that greeted their summer.
This was a performance and a result to be celebrated. After Gilroy opened the account – 50/1 with some bookies before the game – the tries flowed with Sexton and Tommy Bowe rounding off great performances with a brace each and Richardt Strauss and Zebo adding to the scoreline for Ireland's best ever return against the South Americans.
This was very much a celebratory day of work and, with marquee players due back for the Six Nations, Ireland now have a platform from which they must build and add to. It's a shame that we must wait until February for the follow-up act but the standard has now been set. It is up to them to reach, and indeed better, it in 2013.
IRELAND – S Zebo; T Bowe (F McFadden 74), K Earls, G D'Arcy, C Gilroy; J Sexton ( R O'Gara 72), C Murray (E Reddan 72); C Healy (D Kilcoyne 74), R Strauss (S Cronin 74), M Ross (M Bent 68); D Ryan, M McCarthy (D O'Callaghan 63); P O'Mahony (I Henderson 72), C Henry, J Heaslip.
ARGENTINA – JM Hernandez; G Camacho, M Bosch, S Fernandez, J Imhoff (M Montero 54); N Sanchez (G Tiesi 61), M Landajo (N Vergallo 69); M Ayerza (N Lobo 69), E Guinazu ( A Creevy 57), M Bustos; M Carizza, J Farias Cabello; J Fernandez Lobbe, J Leguizamon (T Leonardi 55), L Senatore (F Gomez Kodela 65).
Ref – Jaco Peyper (South Africa)