Quick-fire Stringer holds key for Kidney
Published 27/11/2010 | 05:00
Much though we hope for a winning performance of substance and style tomorrow at the Aviva Stadium, let's be honest here: for Ireland, winning is the most important thing.
While defeat wouldn't result in a World Cup exit, the loss of a Grand Slam, Six Nations title or Triple Crown, this is the final chance to get things right ahead of the upcoming northern hemisphere tournament -- the last before the 2011 World Cup.
Despite five defeats in the last six Tests, last weekend's gutsy performance against New Zealand has provided Ireland with a timely boost in confidence ahead of tomorrow's guaranteed arm wrestle and slug fest against Argentina -- a proud rugby nation which makes no apologies for sticking rigidly to what it does best.
It may not be pretty and might not have punters rushing from their armchairs to Dublin 4, but at least with the Pumas what you see is what you get, and despite the presence of the mesmeric Felipe Contepomi at out-half, a gargantuan physical forward struggle is a certainty.
The challenge for every team playing Argentina is to deal with what they're going to throw at you. Jamie Heaslip was on the money when he suggested, "you've got to go through them to earn the right to go round them."
What he means is that in order to dictate the pace and trend of the game, you've got to control the ball and, against the ultra-strong, ultra-physical Pumas, that means meeting them with equal ferocity in every aspect of forward play: ie the scrums, line-outs, rucks, mauls and, especially, in broken play around the fringes and on or over the gain-line.
This will be another war of attrition, but the visitors do not possess the same high-powered resources behind the scrum as the All Blacks or Springboks and shouldn't drive any aspect of forward advantage home to the same effect.
Contepomi will kick his goals, that's for sure, hence the need for controlled discipline, which won't be easy given the lack of love between the teams. This fixture has become a real grudge match.
It presents a different type of challenge for the hosts, though we can expect the same level of ferocity as we've seen over the past three weeks. In that respect, and here I agree totally with team manager Paul McNaughton in his take, it is as close as it gets to replicating the challenges the World Cup will throw up.
That in itself, despite the injury fallout, is no bad thing. But whereas last weekend was primarily about producing a performance, this is all about winning. Three wins from four home November internationals represented an optimistic yet achievable return for Ireland, but a disappointing opener against the Boks put paid to that.
Two from four would be acceptable, but one from four would turn up the heat and do little for morale ahead of the team's post-Christmas challenges.
With all due respect to the Pumas, another defeat for Ireland, given where this team is and the stage in the season we're now at, is pretty much unthinkable. This is definitive 'must-win' territory.
It would have been nice to see Devin Toner or perhaps Sean O'Brien in from the start but, bearing in mind the opposition and the stakes, Declan Kidney has got his selection just about right.
The real question and potential area of concern is the front-row, where -- in terms of caps and years -- Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Tony Buckley simply aren't in the same league as Rodrigo Roncero, Mario Ledesma and Martin Scelzo.
Here we could struggle, but equally if these three -- supported by those behind -- front up, then the measured change at half-back could pay dividends.
Peter Stringer is in alongside Jonny Sexton, not because he is playing a whole lot better than Eoin Reddan, but because he brings a different dynamic to the position and the team. Stringer's undoubted strength is his wrist-driven speed of pass and on a day when moving opposition man-mountains around is the primary concern, it is the most logical way to go.
Stringer is not back in the scrum-half role to snipe around the edges or act as some sort of extra wing-forward a la Tomas O'Leary. The extra split-second the speed of his passing delivers will enable the likes of Sexton, Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll to take the Pumas to wider areas they do not want to go.
It is a big game for David Wallace and Geordan Murphy too. Wallace hasn't yet fired on all cylinders and for Murphy it is an opportunity, with Rob Kearney out, to stake his claim for the full-back position ahead of the February campaign.
It is a tricky balancing act for the head coach. He knows he must win, but he also recognises he cannot do so by being conservative. That would play 100pc into Puma hands. The key is in meeting the juggernaut early and quickly establishing a platform to go on and win the game.
With the obvious exception of O'Leary, Luke Fitzgerald and Paul O'Connell, possibly Jerry Flannery and Kearney, this is both Kidney's best available and most likely starting Six Nations XV. Positions are there to be won or lost tomorrow afternoon.
Argentina do not pretend to be anything they are not, a point probably best articulated by centre Gonzalo Tiesi in midweek when he said, "maybe our game is not good to look at or entertaining, but it is effective."
No one can argue with that assessment and it's without doubt a portent of things to come. The warnings coming from the Met Office suggest it would be best to wrap up well, but rest assured, there will be some level of heat radiating from the forward fire in the middle of the Lansdowne pitch. With the Pumas, you're guaranteed at the very least a ferocious battle.