Monday 22 January 2018

We have been warned

Argentina's last visit to Dublin in 2008 brought plenty of fireworks and, despite Ireland having many walking wounded, it may do so again on Sunday
Argentina's last visit to Dublin in 2008 brought plenty of fireworks and, despite Ireland having many walking wounded, it may do so again on Sunday
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Motivation is an integral part of the modern-day professional's life. Getting it for the visit of the All Blacks would have taken little effort. Playing New Zealand at any time is special. For some it represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, for others -- however experienced -- the chance to take performance to another level.

New Zealand, just like Brazil in football, have that aura of something magical and, aside from the small matter of winning World Cups, they seldom let us down.

We all celebrate to some degree when the Wallabies, Springboks or, most particularly, the French put one over them at the World Cup, yet when the All Blacks exit the big jamboree, so much goes with them. They are the yardstick by which other teams are measured and yet again on Saturday they delivered.

Without losing the run of ourselves, we were magnificent in defeat. It's nice to dream sometimes about just how good we might be as a rugby-playing nation were there no Gaelic games, if almost everybody on this little island of ours was as single-mindedly committed to the oval code as everybody in New Zealand.

There the all-consuming dream is to be an All Black. Here, rugby, while growing in the hearts and minds of the nation, is still realistically our fourth-ranked team sport.


Saturday's enthralling spectacle of wholehearted endeavour still managed to highlight the huge chasm that exists between the top-ranked teams and the rest. The biggest identifiable difference is in power and pace which, when combined over 80 energy-sapping minutes, equals top-level intensity.

When you see the way pampered, over-paid footballers wince at the merest hint of physical contact, it puts the honest commitment of rugby and GAA players in context.

The scene under the west stand on Saturday evening was like one from an episode of 'M*A*S*H' such was the post-match injury carnage.

Already Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Rory Best have been ruled out for Sunday's visit of the Pumas, with doubts surrounding Brian O'Driscoll, Tommy Bowe and Gordon D'Arcy.

The injuries are a bitter blow for head coach Declan Kidney, because if ever there was the need for a full hand from which to pick, this was it, with an eye towards Six Nations preparation.

Let's be honest here, the thought of Rodrigo Roncero, Mario Ledesma, Martin Scelzo and the rest fronting up at the Aviva in five days' time is hardly one to whet the appetite or quickly reinvigorate battered and bruised bodies.

Argentina may be just below us at No 8 in the IRB world rankings but they are at the opposite end of the excitement spectrum to the Kiwis. This is not a Test for experimentation, but one we dare not lose. In order to build on the promise of the performance against the All Blacks, a win of any hue is essential in the final dress rehearsal before the Six Nations.

Despite some mischievous suggestions, based as ever on the non-selection of an individual or individuals, Kidney is not being given a 'soft ride'. He has his work cut out this week in recharging rapidly emptying batteries. The challenge will be in blending fresh blood (of necessity) along with those facing a third physically exacting Test in four weeks.

So where to from here? Knowing O'Driscoll's physical and mental capacity for recovery, I will be surprised if the skipper is not back in midfield on Sunday. We will have a better idea later today of the injury situations regarding Bowe, O'Driscoll and D'Arcy. Were all three to miss out, it would necessitate an entirely new three-quarter line to face the Pumas.

A shadow backline beyond half-back could read: Geordan Murphy; Shane Horgan, Keith Earls, Paddy Wallace and Andrew Trimble. I would have no problem with that scenario but, on the assumption all three walking wounded make it, take Murphy at full-back and Earls or Trimble down the left flank to make the cut.

At half-back, how Kidney views the lack of 'gra' between Felipe Contepomi and Ronan O'Gara might well influence the call at out-half. I would give Jonathan Sexton another starting run. I would, however, use the Puma challenge to mix and match, with Peter Stringer starting and Eoin Reddan springing from the bench on the hour mark, perhaps with O'Gara alongside.

The front-row will certainly earn its corn in the tight and I would envisage forward change being kept to a minimum.

In Best's absence, Sean Cronin is a certain starter at hooker, and justifiably so. His throwing into the line-out still needs some fine-tuning but in terms of vibrancy around the field he is already right up there.

Cian Healy and Tom Court should again start on either side of Cronin, with Donncha O'Callaghan and Mick O'Driscoll again in the boiler house to begin with, given the pressing needs of the scrum this time out. That said, I would dearly like to see Devin Toner given his chance.

In the back-row the issue again is balance -- I would go with Denis Leamy, Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip. Sean O'Brien's confidence could do with a boost and certainly a place on the bench could prove timely in that regard.

The battle in the next few days is psychological every bit as much as it is physical. The last thing this group need is the Pumas next up.

But that is the nature of the professional game and for now the four-game demand of the Autumn Test window.

Saturday at last made for a positive step in the right direction heading towards the World Cup, but just how positive and just how meaningful will be measured in the follow-on performance and result on Sunday.

History tells us what to expect. Whatever else, we can't say we haven't been warned.

Irish Independent

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