Sunday 18 March 2018

Conor George: Heaslip must stand up and be counted in battle to preserve Ireland's place among world elite

Conor George

Conor George

IT comes down to a very simple statement – win and Ireland have a top-eight ranking, lose and they won't.

This is the second time that Ireland and Argentina have met with ranking and seeding on the line. Four years ago, Argentina were obliging enough to roll over as Ireland won 17-3 and the status quo was retained. This is a very different Argentina team and a similarly changed Ireland outfit. In fact, only Tommy Bowe and Jamie Heaslip survive from the starting line-up that day.

The worry this time round centres on the fact that the fortunes of Argentina have changed significantly. They are now legitimate players on the world stage, a respected and, at times, feared top-eight nation and they will provide a quality of opposition today that Ireland have always struggled against.

Ireland's record against the top-tier teams is deficient. In the 34 games since 2010, Ireland have recorded just 14 wins and only four (England twice, Wales and Australia) have been against heavyweight opposition.

As a result of their exploits in the Rugby Championship, Argentina are now in that heavyweight category. They may not have managed a win in their inaugural season in this competition – the best they recorded was a draw with South Africa – but their victory over Wales a fortnight ago highlights just how much they have come on.

Argentina have never won in Dublin, which will be another huge motivation for them today.

With the stakes so high, the pressure levels have been ratcheted up. Despite their protestations to the contrary, the gravity of the situation must be weighing heavily on Ireland, if not on the players then certainly on the coaching staff, who are, in essence, auditioning for their future positions.

It is only fair to acknowledge that Ireland are currently operating under an injury crisis. There would be a more positive spin were this a team augmented by the presence of O'Driscoll, O'Connell, Kearney, O'Brien, etc. When you then throw in the enforced retirements of Jerry Flannery, David Wallace and even Denis Leamy, it is difficult not to feel sympathy for those operating under these conditions.

Ireland's problem is that they have lost their last five Tests, in which they have scored just two tries and conceded 18. Now they must do what they haven't been able to for over 18 months – play for 80 minutes and control the pace of the game and the game itself.

In this regard the importance of Jonathan Sexton, Donnacha Ryan, Mike Ross and Heaslip cannot be overstated. Sexton must manage the game. He must make the right decisions, must keep the Argentina players turning back on themselves with judicious use of his boot and must not provide talisman Juan Martin Hernandez with ball he can run onto.

If the Argentinian full-back is given the space to counter-attack, he could crucify Ireland, with the emphasis likely to be on engaging the Irish defence on the left, where the inexperienced Craig Gilroy will be making his debut.

As an attacking player, Gilroy's credentials are above reproach, but, as Tommy Bowe has highlighted, this will be one of those games where it is unlikely we'll see exuberant rugby.

The example for Ireland must be set by Jamie Heaslip. The captain must repay the faith shown in him when he was handed the armband. At his best, he is one of the game's outstanding No 8s, but he hasn't hit his peak in a green jersey for quite some time. This is an opportunity for him to step up and prove he is the future for this team.

Argentina's back-row trio of Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Juan Manuel Leguizamon and Leonardo Senatore are all huge men who can facilitate quick ball for out-half Nicolas Sanchez. Thus, Peter O'Mahony, Chris Henry and, in particular, Heaslip must dominate them at the breakdown.

Where Ireland might find an advantage is out of touch, where the absence of line-out specialist Patricio Albacete must be looked on as a positive. As the line-out caller, Ryan must anticipate Argentina's throws and ensure a 100pc return from Richardt Strauss' darts.

Much has rightly been made of Argentina's guile behind the scrum and with Hernandez at full-back, there is a certain unknown quantity about what to expect from them in an attacking sense.

Ultimately, though, this is a game that will be determined by the forwards' battle. If Ireland can limit the chances they afford Argentina by dominating possession and territory and can gain and maintain an advantage in the forward exchanges, then they can certainly win this game. Unfortunately, given where they're coming from, it's a very tough ask.

Verdict: Ireland

Irish Independent

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