Tuesday 20 August 2019

New-look Ireland have the chance to sign off window of progress on a high with big win over tired Pumas

Peter O’Mahony leads the players through their paces during Ireland squad training. Photo: Sportsfile
Peter O’Mahony leads the players through their paces during Ireland squad training. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The ticket sales tell us otherwise, but from a long way out this November window looked like a hard sell after the excitement of last year.

A good job, Joe Schmidt told us before it started, would be three performances and the results to match. He's got two wins and one excellent display so far so, having introduced so many new faces to the team last week against Fiji, he'd be happy with a return to the standards his team showed against South Africa a fortnight ago today.

That would surely suffice against an Argentina team in the middle of a World Cup cycle, low on confidence and at the end of their long, hard season.

No one in Ireland will underestimate the Pumas after their show of strength in Cardiff two years ago, but the circumstances are very different.

Sustaining a high level of performance when traversing the globe for 10 months of the year is hard to do. Apart from their coach Daniel Hourcade, no one would forgive them if they had home in their sights.

For Ireland, the real goal this year is reclaiming the Six Nations title.

Straightforward

After mixing it up for the month of November, Schmidt is likely to keep things straightforward selection-wise in the spring.

Winning the title and a three-Test series in Australia would be real markers of intent as 2019 approaches and, having deepened his squad and learned who he can and cannot trust, he'll now focus on those goals.

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Adam Byrne becomes the 32nd player Schmidt has capped since the fateful day when Ireland were dumped out of the World Cup by the South Americans and a debut in what is essentially the first team is a sign that Schmidt rates him highly.

Ditto James Ryan, the athletic Leinster lock who has been spoken of as the next big thing and makes his first start at the Aviva Stadium.

Chris Farrell's chance was less planned for, but the Munster centre has a real opportunity to impress.

Last week, the second-string struggled for cohesion against a robust Fiji team. This week, the team from No's 1-10 looks much stronger and while there is inexperience beyond the half-backs the calibre of player inside them should help them through.

The Argentinian pack is full of strong ball-carriers and breakdown threats, but their set-piece is not what it once was. In particular, their scrum has struggled all season and Ireland's has been excellent under the tutelage of Greg Feek.

That, plus Ireland's excellent discipline and aggressive defensive line, are real strengths.

Ireland have not had to adapt their plan too much from the South Africa one, according to Rory Best. The two southern hemisphere sides play a similar way, but the Ireland captain reckons Argentina do it better.

"They're actually not that dissimilar in terms of the way they want to play," he said.

"People have a historic view of how they play and it's all forward and physicality and scrum and maul.

"They've actually evolved their game dramatically, they're looking to play with a lot of width, a lot depth and a lot of speed.

"If you want to look back again to the World Cup, they definitely unpicked us a lot there with the speed, width and depth they played with.

"So, yeah, in terms of that, they're potentially further down the road than South Africa are in terms of that's the way South Africa are trying to play and they are, but there are times when they can't get it going.

"Argentina will always get it going, it's just how much you can dictate your game on them.

"So, look, they're similar but they're benefiting from the Rugby Championship and playing their club rugby together."

Whatever about the rugby, the travel involved in playing in the Super Rugby and Rugby Championship is gruelling.

No team in professional sport clocks up air-miles like the Pumas who must be on their last legs.

Doing it while enduring poor results makes it more difficult.

After reaching the World Cup semi-final in style two years ago, there has been little sign of Hourcade's team kicking on. Victories have been few and far between and the hard and fast rule on not picking European-based players has had to be reconsidered.

Yet, there is a wariness in Irish circles this week that belies the fact that they are 15-point favourites against the world's 10th-ranked side.

They may never have beaten Ireland in Dublin, but there is no doubting that Argentina are a threat.

Their strength is arguably where Ireland are weakest on paper. From No's 12-14, Ireland's four players are in the infancy of their international careers.

The centres have barely trained together, the wingers are great going forward but there to be tested defensively.

Rob Kearney will play a big role. For all that he gets an undue amount of criticism, there is a reason all of these highly-rated coaches choose to pick him over and over again.

Aside from his obvious contribution in the air, his positional work and under-rated attacking qualities the Leinster No 15 is a key communicator in the backline who is tasked with filling in gaps for those operating in limited time and space.

Ireland will hope to disrupt the flow of possession that Argentina enjoy through their big men.

Whether it is the bustling front-rows, the dynamic locks, the combination of Peter O'Mahony, Seán O'Brien and CJ Stander and a centre pairing of Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell, this team is not short on ball-carriers or men who win collisions.

Then there are the half-backs. Both teams have classy operators, but Ireland's will hope to have the front-foot ball and if handed a solid platform Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will back their skills and decision-making.

Were Argentina to give Martin Landajo and Nicolas Sanchez the armchair ride, it could be a very different match.

That would require an improved set-piece effort and a big performance from the likes of Pablo Matera who can get his side going forward.

Certainly, Hourcade is anticipating a tough evening.

"Ireland is one of the teams that has progressed most in the last three years," he said.

"Ireland are a very hard team for you to break. It is a team with a very good scrum, very good set-piece , probably one of the hardest teams in the world.

"Perhaps Argentina have a stronger change in the way of playing. Ireland is progressing a lot but always under the same idea of a style of play.

"Probably two years ago you were surprised at the way we started playing. Perhaps nobody expected Argentina to play the way we had done. But the top teams, you only surprise them once. Now it's harder, that is our challenge."

Ireland know what's coming and will back their experience and talent to get themselves another November win based on a quality performance.

That will be a satisfying end to an international window that won't live long in the memory but has been a valuable exercise for the coaching staff as they build to bigger and better things.

Verdict: Ireland 27 Argentina 14

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