Sunday 18 November 2018

Neil Francis: 'No disrespect - but Argentina is the practice match before the big November clash'

New Zealand clash will define this series of games - and the big hitters need to be primed

16 June 2018; The Ireland team stand for the national anthem prior to the 2018 Mitsubishi Estate Ireland Series 2nd Test match between Australia and Ireland at AAMI Park, in Melbourne, Australia. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
16 June 2018; The Ireland team stand for the national anthem prior to the 2018 Mitsubishi Estate Ireland Series 2nd Test match between Australia and Ireland at AAMI Park, in Melbourne, Australia. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Bloke goes down to the Slug & Lettuce pub on the Kings Road, walks in, sits down at the bar and says nothing. Barman comes over, yer man points at the beer tap. "Do you want a pint?" asks the barman.

The man nods and as the barman pulls the pint he notices a huge scar across the man's throat, "Jesus, where did you get that?" he asks.

The man manages to croak out a reply, "Falklands".

"Jesus, we have a real hero in this pub," says the barman to everyone in the bar before handing the guy a pint.

"This one is on the house mate cos you boys did a great job over there."

"Muchas gracias, senor."

The days of the Argies turning up at the party "uninvited" are not over - but at this moment in time their role in Dublin is as the meat in a preparatory sandwich for the All Blacks game - a game which the headmaster expects will be a signature performance.

Bad times have a scientific value. The only time I am going to mention our loss to Argentina in the Rugby World Cup 2015 is because Joe - we think - will not get caught in Japan like he did in Cardiff. Building squad depth notionally is great.

Luck, I think, is a greater ally - you lose your best 5/6 players coming into a quarter-final of a World Cup - the odds are that you will lose.

The loss to Argentina was more down to bad luck with injury - no matter what you do you will never have like-for-like replacements for Johnny Sexton, Paul O'Connell, Seán O'Brien etc.

Head coach Joe Schmidt during Ireland rugby squad training at Carton House in Maynooth, Co. Kildare. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Head coach Joe Schmidt during Ireland rugby squad training at Carton House in Maynooth, Co. Kildare. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Take Beauden Barrett, Kieran Read, Aaron Smith, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock out of the All Blacks team and they are vulnerable. We know this because New Zealand lost their starting second-rows in Chicago and had no fire-power in their pack.

So we went to Chicago again and built some squad depth and eh… picked up a cheque for €1m. Who starts against New Zealand out of the Chicago contingent? Garry Ringrose and Jacob Stockdale. That's it.

The Argentina game will be a requirement for the starting XV that will be picked for the All Black game.

Joe Schmidt's teams normally perform better the further along the programme they go. That theory holds except for the match in 2015 that I said I wasn't going to mention.

The reality is the All Blacks have been on tour since August. They might even be sick of the sight of each other at this stage. They are a long way from purring but they have a big jump on Ireland and even England in the sense that there are no signs of rustiness or organisational unfamiliarity.

Ireland's shadow squad, while putting a big number on a lamentable Italian side, lacked familiarity and never really flowed.

Normally in Joe's sides X factor is trumped by structure and organisation.

There was plenty of X factor in the game which brought it out of the mire as a spectacle.

Take the contributions of Jordan Larmour and to a lesser extent Garry Ringrose out of the equation and you can knock 28 points off the scoreboard.

Individual brilliance is not normally a headline in Joe's locker-room but when praising the young man - Schmidt may secretly have been thinking, 'do I give him more leash or do I rein him in?'

The Ireland team will be announced today at lunchtime. I would be very surprised if he doesn't announce his full-strength side - bar injuries.

England, despite their injury toll, will have benefited from a no-holds-barred encounter with South Africa.

If they had gone in cold against New Zealand it could have got ugly.

England didn't score or look like scoring a try all afternoon and I had to bite my tongue when Clive Woodward announced that England would have to score four or five tries to beat New Zealand. Dum di dum!

In 2016, New Zealand were caught cold. They played with little rhythm and they hadn't played with each other for a while.

They are in the groove right now and Ireland will have to try to get there quickly. That means all of Ireland's available starters start this Saturday. Tadhg Beirne had a big game last Saturday but that does not mean that he should believe that he is entitled to start this Saturday.

Anytime Quinn Roux looks like an international player it means the game a low-grade tie.

Ireland's starting second-row pairing should be James Ryan and Iain Henderson.

Neither has played much rugby this season or reached their pitch of performance of last season.

If the New Zealand game is going to be won in the battle of the second-rows - and it will - then it is important that our influential locking pair play together on Saturday.

Guido Petti and Tomas Lavanini are respectable opposition who should start for Argentina in the second-row.

The two of them formed a brilliant partnership in that match in 2015 that, again, I wasn't going to mention.

Petti was 20 and Lavanini 22 at the time. Kids! Brilliant, aggressive and combative kids.

Speaking of brilliant, aggressive kids, where is Ultan Dillane at?

I feel that Joe will plump for O'Brien against New Zealand. A strong 60 minutes against Argentina will confirm that it is the right choice.

O'Brien's influence against Toulouse for Leinster was intermittent but when he did figure in the action his presence and class were obvious.

A good hit-out and an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the exceptional Pablo Matera would normally be pencilled in as the highlight of Saturday's game. That is if Johnny Sexton and Nicolas Sanchez weren't playing against each other.

Sanchez top-scored in the Rugby Championship this season. He did so because Beauden Barrett's kicking was hitting 50pc in some of the Tests he played.

Sanchez is a better kicker than Barrett but got out-scored four tries to five by the New Zealander. It tells you a lot about the Rugby Championship - try-scoring out-halves.

Barrett has scored an incredible 31 international tries (not all from out-half) and Sanchez comes in with a paltry 11. Sexton has 9.

Sanchez is a vastly under-rated player but must be one of the smartest and coolest rugby players in the world right now.

Wily and observant, he seems able to control games with a nonchalance and ease that only great players possess.

Sanchez, no more than Sexton for Ireland, is the key influence for the Pumas.

He has enough guile to let Argentina play to their strengths - which is now, more than in 2015, a wide game.

The manner in which we are told that Conor Murray has not been ruled out has become a little tedious.

There have been many important players who have come straight back in from a long-term injury and played as if they were never away. O'Brien did just that a fortnight ago.

If Murray is half-right he will play. Bulging discs are 10 a penny in every international Test squad. If he took contact in Carton House he will start.

Argentina were unlucky in the Rugby Championship this year. Their performance against New Zealand in Nelson was a travesty on the scoreboard but that's what New Zealand do.

It was even-stevens throughout the 80 - the scoreline did not reflect the trend of the game. This is what Ireland must do against the Pumas.

I expect parity in terms of possession and territory but Ireland need to be far more clinical when it comes to scoring - something they also need to do the week after. This is the practice match. No disrespect.

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