Neil Francis: 'I haven't seen Ireland play this badly in a long time'
On the way to the Aviva Stadium yesterday I noticed that the national knitting and crochet event was on in the RDS. Maybe Ireland might pop down there tomorrow, because the ability to knit was something that was sorely missing yesterday.
I have not seen Ireland play this badly in a long time. A lot of the looseness was down to an inability to gel, but we know a team coached by Joe Schmidt can get into sync pretty quickly. All the way through, though, there were shortcomings and failings which were more down to an inability to get the team dynamic functioning. Some of the players on the pitch just were not up to the standard required, and mentally some of the players were a long way off where they needed to be. Some of the senior players were a distance away from what we expect of them.
The question so, is: were they in energy-saving mode?
If discipline is the bridge to success then Ireland did well to come away with a victory here. Some of their inaccuracy was pardonable but some of it was unforgivable.
The team seemed to fall into a tactical sink-hole. Our halves never controlled the game, and while Kieran Marmion performed his scrum-half duties reasonably he never dictated the pace of the game and was unable to vary the point of attack with enough intelligence. Nor was his passing as crisp or accurate as it should be at this level. Luke McGrath's introduction brought a semblance of order and a little bit more bite but at that stage Argentina had run out of gas.
It is rare that you see the words 'ordinary' and 'Johnny Sexton' in the same sentence but that is precisely how you would describe his performance. It is hard to know what was going through his head for I have not seen a kicking performance as poor from Ireland's icon in a long, long time. His cross-kicks lacked any real thought and their accuracy and depth were poor. Ireland's chasers did not even get close to contesting.
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Another area of concern was Sexton's kick-offs. The short dink up the middle was reasonably well placed but Ireland did not have anybody of the right calibre to go and chase ball that was eminently gettable. Will Addison is a decent provincial player and that is it. In direct contrast the quality of Nicolas Sanchez's kicking was one of the things that kept Argentina in this game. The richness of his contribution did not end with his kicking as he managed to work his midfield through the centre of the park on a number of occasions.
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The most disturbing aspect of Ireland's performance was their inability to deal with Sanchez's kicks and exit properly. Iain Henderson was guilty on several occasions of mistiming his jump, and an Argentinian player seemed to be able to latch on to the loose ball every time.
Ireland could not control their kick-off receptions nor could they manage to get a reliable exit at any stage. So Ireland may have dominated territory but they spent a god-awful amount of time recovering themselves and working their way back into Argentina's territory.
So there will be no jingoistic 'Bring on the All Blacks' after that performance.
There is an absolute here, and it is this Ireland won yesterday because they were fitter than Argentina, and they were able to outlast them. That won't happen against New Zealand, who were decidedly average in Twickenham yesterday. The Kiwis play in rain just as much as we do yet their performance was tactically myopic, trusting too much in their ability to play the kicking game in behind.
But if Ireland had played the All Blacks yesterday, on the same pitch, in the same conditions, it would have been a return to the good old days of the 50-point thrashings. Our combat athletes, particularly our back row, were strangely subdued and lacked the purpose, drive, insight and personality we expect from them. CJ Stander in particular has been limping along this season and if he is selected for next week he needs to turn up with a serious performance.
With Sean O'Brien sidelined, who will deal with Ardie Savea next week? The balance in our back row needs to be absolutely right.
Bundee Aki gave a performance full of energy and action but without Garry Ringrose the quality of passing in our midfield just is not good enough and once Sexton released the ball it was the second or third passes that let Ireland down.
There will need to be quite a number of changes for next week to shore up some of the shortcomings. The trip to Chicago was a complete waste of time, and while Jordan Larmour will grow in to the role at full-back, now is not his time. In the 28th minute Sanchez put up a steepling up and under. You could not have Satnav'd the drop zone any better as the ball landed literally on Ireland's line. It's a lonely place being full-back at Test level. Larmour was unable to get into the air to challenge, the ball went loose and Ireland mercifully recovered. If ever there was a moment where you could say 'this is why we pick Rob Kearney', this was it.
Argentina won an uncomfortably large percentage of the aerial duels. This is something that Steve Hansen is looking at as you read this piece.
Ireland need to produce a performance of rare quality next week after the stale and flaccid display yesterday. A mystery!
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