Monday 16 September 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'The case for Jordan Larmour at 15 has to be marked 'not proven' at this stage'

Distracted for Pumas, Ireland will find out what they're really made of against All Blacks

10 November 2018; Jordan Larmour of Ireland fields a high ball during the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and Argentina at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
10 November 2018; Jordan Larmour of Ireland fields a high ball during the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and Argentina at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Now for the main course. The match in Chicago was a refreshing amuse-bouche but this win over Argentina was more in the nature of an undistinguished hors d'oeuvre. A bit difficult to digest at first, but it slipped down OK in the end.

This time next week it's unlikely that anyone will be talking about what happened against the Pumas. The collective supporter mind has room for little but New Zealand. And there were times yesterday when the team seemed similarly distracted.

The lethal combination of passion and precision which has marked a magnificent 2018 was largely absent from Ireland's performance. But if this was not vintage Joe Schmidt Ireland it bore the manager's imprint all the same. Ireland, as they did so often in the utilitarian era at the beginning of Schmidt's reign, did the job and got over the line.

In the end they did so with a relative level of comfort. Predictions of a massacre were a bit far-fetched. Argentina were good enough to beat South Africa and Australia in the Rugby Championship. They have enjoyed destroying Irish hubris in the past and gave it a nice jolt again in the Aviva.

Jordan Larmour's day summed up how Ireland were brought back down to earth. His performance in Chicago led to a week of hype that suggested he had finally come of an age as an international player. Yet the full-back's uncertainty under a couple of first half garryowens made you pine for the unglamorous solidity of Rob Kearney. Especially since, at the other end, Emiliano Boffelli plucked ball out of the air with the sort of ease which draws knowing comments about the usefulness of a Gaelic football background when exhibited by someone in a green jersey.

The case for Larmour at number 15 has to be marked 'not proven' at this stage. Other players with something to prove enjoyed mixed fortunes. Sean O'Brien, playing just his 16th match in 14 months, departed before half-time with what looks like a broken arm, the latest in a line of debilitating injuries. Is there an unluckier player in Irish sport?

Kieran Marmion profited from the absence of Conor Murray to make a rare start and must have felt he'd cemented his status as second choice when darting over for a first-half try. But Marmion too went off injured and saw Luke McGrath come on to stake his claim with an even better try, an elusive burst which evoked memories of Colin Patterson doing his thing at the end of the 1970s.

It was a curate's egg of a performance. Ireland dominated in the scrum against an Argentina front row which was as poor a unit as has played in the Aviva. But the lineout was a mess for long periods. The arrival of Devin Toner restored some stability but the most telling contribution out of touch was the steal by Peter O'Mahony which set up McGrath's try and effectively killed off the visitors' challenge.

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It was the kind of moment we've come to expect from this team, the screw being turned and the chance being taken at the crucial time. It came just a couple of minutes after Ireland had put together 19 phases and sapped the life out of Argentina. Yet such sustained drives were conspicuous by their absence.

At times there was an unreal quality to the proceedings. Ireland began as though preparing to sweep Argentina aside, moving the ball in their own 22 and putting a couple of scorable penalties into touch. By the end Johnny Sexton was happy enough to slot kicks between the posts, the fact of victory having become more important than the manner of it.

For all Argentina's efforts they never really looked like winners. Bautista Delguy's 17th-minute try was the equivalent of that moment in The Adventures of Robin Hood when Basil Rathbone's sword nicks Errol Flynn on the cheek and our hero quips, "I needed that scratch to awaken me."

The waking was a gradual one and was not helped by Sexton's uncharacteristic uncertainty. But by the fourth quarter the machine was humming with a familiar efficiency. Dan Leavy didn't look like a man who'd played in South Africa just six days previously, Bundee Aki was sharp and combative and above all James Ryan was James Ryan.

With 17 carries, 12 tackles and some crucial lineout takes and turnovers, Ryan was the most influential player on the field. It's bizarre to think that he did not play in last year's end of season internationals. Lady Ga Ga isn't the only star who was born in 2018.

You wonder sometimes if there's any upper limit to Ryan's potential. We might find out next week when he goes up against Brodie Retallick. All the Irish players will find out a lot about themselves. The All Blacks were as unimpressive against England as Ireland were against Argentina but both teams won and will be a lot better next Saturday. The real thing awaits.

Bring it on.

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