Monday 17 June 2019

Powerful Pumas the perfect warm-up as Ireland look to fine-tune for the All Blacks

Jonathan Sexton during Ireland rugby squad training. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton during Ireland rugby squad training. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Within the Ireland set-up, they are not allowed to look beyond this weekend. For everyone else, this month is about one thing and one thing alone: Ireland v New Zealand.

In facing Italy and Argentina before the big one, Joe Schmidt has been handed graded steps up in class that should set things up nicely for a tilt at the world's No 1 team next Saturday.

He won't overlook the threats that Argentina bring to the Aviva Stadium this evening, but he knows that his team have reached a position whereby if they perform to their best they can account for most teams.

Argentina bring a powerful running game and some of the game's most exciting outside backs, but coach Mario Ledesma is only in the door and his team are a long way from achieving their potential.

The bookies are so convinced by Ireland's superiority that they are handing the Pumas an 18-point head-start in the handicap market, but there is reason to suspect that this could be tighter than that.

For one thing, there is no Conor Murray in the Ireland team. Kieran Marmion steps up with questions hanging over his position as No 2 and with Luke McGrath and John Cooney breathing down his neck.

Furthermore, Ireland's prized preparation has been disrupted by their travel schedule. The team have trained together properly twice, while replacement flanker Dan Leavy was in South Africa last weekend and only joined the squad on Wednesday night.

There are question-marks over the form of skipper Rory Best and established back-rows Seán O'Brien and CJ Stander. Indeed, Stephen Ferris this week stated that his old team-mate O'Brien is under pressure with Leavy and Josh van der Flier snapping at his heels.

And then there is Jordan Larmour - the 21-year-old starlet who lit up Chicago but who was found wanting when Toulouse put pressure on last month.

Argentina have evolved their game and are excellent tactical kickers. If there is a weakness in the wonderkid's game, they'll try and expose it.

And yet, the Six Nations champions are a hugely formidable outfit, with a solid set-piece from which they can launch a nuanced attacking plan run by the arguably the best player in the world this year in Johnny Sexton.

The pack won't find bullying the likes of Pablo Matera and Thomas Lavanini easy, while the inclusion of Guido Petti on the flank is designed to put pressure on Best's throw. But with willing carriers Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki in the backline there is enough power to win the gain-line battle.

Sexton's capacity to mix up the game-plan should be valuable in unpredictable conditions, but any loose kicking will bring the Pumas' lethal back-three of Bautista Delguy, Emiliano Bofelli and Ramiro Moyano into play.

Ireland's outside backs are no slouches either, however, and Sexton will be keen to bring Larmour, Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale into the game at every opportunity.

Ireland can beat you several different ways and their high scoring rates during 2018 will serve as a warning to an Argentina team who have a tendency to concede big tallies.

New captain Matera said he is not concerned about fatigue as they approach the end of a long year full of air miles and Ireland will recall their late surge in last year's otherwise comfortable game as a warning.

Still, their superior scrum should afford them the field position from which they can attack and once they pin an opponent back they are very good at making it count on the scoreboard.

Argentina's attack will ask them the kind of questions they'll face next week when the world champions arrive.

Schmidt's job is to ensure their minds don't drift to that game, but the competition in the squad should help in that regard as players perform with a view to holding on to their jersey.

The Pumas will test them, but they should have enough to pass and if they pick up some useful lessons along the way then all the better.

Verdict: Ireland 32 Argentina 21

Irish Independent

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