Wednesday 21 August 2019

Neil Francis: A great November - and now the Six Nations is within Ireland's remit

25 November 2017; Jacob Stockdale of Ireland scores his side's first try during the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and Argentina at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
25 November 2017; Jacob Stockdale of Ireland scores his side's first try during the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and Argentina at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Those pesky Argies are like an old girlfriend who you have bad memories with and they just keep turning back up. Yesterday was one of the fonder moments, but damn it they just don't go away quietly.

It was certainly obvious that Ireland had their measure, but a second half resurgence from a second wind reassured us that this troublesome side could still play. And for a side that looked very tired in the first half, they finished much stronger and looked more dangerous the more the match went on.

On a bitterly cold evening the bitter pill of defeat can be hard for Argentina to swallow. It was well known before this match began what sort of a schedule they had and logistics and the lines of longitude and latitude more than their line of defence or a perfectly functioning lineout was responsible for a faltering season.

Conventional wisdom tells you that if you play home and away against New Zealand, South Africa and Australia you will get better. You might get beaten quite a lot but you cannot fail to improve in the company that you keep in the Rugby Championship.

Yesterday they were out-muscled by Ireland and they were strangely anaemic in the contact zone. It is very noticeable the change in body shape of their personnel. They no longer have the grizzled hairy-arsed hombres of yore. Their second rows yesterday, Matias Alemanno, Tomas Lavanini and Guido Petti are fantastic lean athletes and good ball handlers. As a consequence their power base at scrum time is no longer a force and Ireland held sway in this department.

I remember in 2004 the match at the same venue when Argentina were kicking off at the start of the game and they deliberately made sure that the ball did not travel 10 metres so that they could get to grips with Ireland's scrum from the off.

It was a fairly presumptuous gambit from Argentina - 'Show us what you've got at scrum time'. Yesterday that sort of machismo was simply not on view and they got pushed off the ball on half a dozen occasions. They were strangely subdued behind the scrum as well as Ireland gang-tackled them and put them under pressure yet again with the speed of their advancing line.

Ireland's back row were just far sharper and far too clever for Argentina at the breakdown and once again, particularly in the first half, Ireland's ball presentation was really good. When Conor Murray gets silver service at the base of the ruck it makes it very easy to control the game. Argentina just couldn't slow our ball down and Ireland should have been more than 13-0 ahead at half time.

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This game was touted as a revenge match for Ireland's ignominious exit from the 2015 World Cup. To have a backlash you need to have backs and you wondered before this game how good Ireland's out-field players would be. I have to say I was very surprised that Chris Farrell got into the squad in the first place and equally surprised that he was retained in the squad even given Robbie Henshaw's hamstring injury.

But yesterday Farrell acquitted himself well despite his unfamiliarity with those around him and he was far more dexterous than I would have given him credit for and one or two of his touches were, in truth, excellent.

Joe has this silk purse effect on players who might not be considered good enough to play international rugby. There were no question marks over Jacob Stockdale's ability, he was outstanding yet again yesterday and his two tries mark him out as a player of real quality.

Farrell's no-look pass managed to commit three of Argentina's defenders and Sexton sailed through the gap with Stockdale timing his run nicely and Ramiro Moyano had no chance when Sexton drew him right and passed left to Stockdale. If I have a quibble it is with Stockdale's finish. Irrespective of whether you are being chased or not, you start diving two metres before the line rather than two metres past it.

He was far more certain with his second try. It was a strange one. For some reason Santiago Gonzalez was transfixed with Sexton and Ireland's pivot fed Stockdale a flat one on a sharp angle and Ireland's left winger went zooming through it. We all know he has gas but what was highly impressive about the finish was the change in pace and he lit up the after-burners to take Nicolas Sanchez and Joaquin Tuculet out of the equation and he scored in the left-hand corner.

James Ryan had a subdued enough performance, he handled the rough and tumble pretty well for a 21-year-old. But we have to remember that Guido Petti was also a 21-year-old when he out-performed against Ireland on that awful day in Cardiff two years ago. Maybe it is time to blood Irish boys far more quickly than we do.

Ireland lost their shape in the second half and even though the penalty count was 7-6 in their favour, they were looking at a yellow card as they tried to thwart Argentina as they were looking for some traction. Sanchez's influence became more pronounced the more the game went on and although I thought Tuculet was half a metre offside from Sanchez's kick through, there was beautiful weight on the ball and the Argentine dotted down.

Andy Farrell's line speed could be countered and this tactic was used a couple of times until eventually Moyano scored from the same tactic in the corner. Ireland though were out the gap and the Six Nations, if everyone stays healthy, is within Ireland's remit. A great November.

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