Saturday 20 January 2018

Eddie O'Sullivan: Perfect time for Irish to settle old scores

Eddie O'Sullivan

"In your life, you meet people. Some, you never think about again. Some, you wonder what happened to them. There are some that you wonder if they ever think about you. And there are some you wish you never had to think about again. But you do."

-- Winston Churchill

Argentina are probably the last team Ireland need to be thinking about right now. They know how to get under our skin and, unfortunately, their grasp of arithmetic is sharp. Maybe it's the old business of familiarity breeding contempt, but the Pumas will see tomorrow's game as a real opportunity to pitch Ireland's rugby credit rating into winter crisis because defeat would leave us with a win return of one from our last nine heading into the upcoming Six Nations campaign.

In other words, it would create an absolute imperative for the team to have a successful championship and, accordingly, compromise the long-term focus on next year's World Cup.

This will be the 10th meeting between the countries since the '99 World Cup and you could say that the rivalry has, on occasion, been less than fraternal.

I should know. In my time as Irish coach, our relationship with the Pumas veered from strained to one of outright hostility. Foul play was frequently an issue. We supported an investigation into two incidents of gouging after our World Cup pool match in 2003 and then presented another six for scrutiny after the Autumn Series clash at Lansdowne Road in 2004.

The latter led to some bizarre email correspondence from Marcelo Loffreda, in which the then Argentina coach accused me of making comments that "might give the wrong idea about Argentinian rugby".

Anyone tuned into the 'ref link' during that game would have heard Brian O'Driscoll repeatedly complaining to Tony Spreadbury about the Pumas' behaviour.

I hadn't intended mentioning the gouging at my post-match press conference but, on being told of Agustin Pichot's declaration that Drico's complaints had been "unsporting", I instinctively fell into "well if you want to talk about unsporting..." mode.

Half a dozen of our players had reported to our medical staff that they'd been gouged and photographs subsequently taken of their injuries, on the insistence of the chief medical officer, substantiated those claims.

Yet, Loffreda emailed me just before Christmas, accusing me of drawing attention to "things that did not happen at all". I took the time to write a pretty detailed and robust response, but that was the last I heard from Marcelo.

Three years later, the Pumas did not hide their delight at evicting Ireland from the World Cup in Paris. They beat us deservedly that day and we could have no complaints but the bad blood between the teams was reflected in the amount of on-field 'sledging' during the game and let's just say some of their players could have been a little more dignified in victory.

That said, those Pumas were a serious outfit. They had been a work in progress for the previous five or six years and, by the time they got to France -- where they would finish in third place -- they could have given anybody a game.

Bouts of indiscipline aside, Argentina are now a genuine force in world rugby and their inclusion in the Tri Nations from 2012 will serve only to copper-fasten that position.

Ireland's recent history against them is distinctly mixed. The games that really mattered -- Lens, RWC '99; Adelaide, RWC '03; Paris, RWC '07; Croke Park, RWC seedings game '08 -- have ended in two victories apiece. Ireland's defeats, in those World Cup games of '99 and '07, both sparked an eruption of national outrage not dissimilar to what we are witnessing in a rather more sobering context today.

So there is certainly history there of Argentina taking us to bad places.

Last weekend's game against New Zealand, albeit a 20-point defeat, left many positives for Ireland. The fact that we attacked the All Blacks at every opportunity lifted much of the gloom left by uninspiring displays against South Africa and Samoa.


Yet, it was Ireland's defensive system that probably gave most reason for enthusiasm. Despite prolonged periods of All Blacks pressure, the precision of Ireland's defence frustrated Graham Henry's team right up to first-half injury-time. In the end, lapses of concentration would cost us dearly. But New Zealand knew they had been in a game. And that was certainly encouraging.

Argentina now present us with an entirely different challenge. Few will have been too surprised that there were no tries scored in their clash with France last weekend, for they are masters of slowing games down and frustrating teams. In a sense, their philosophy is a polar opposite to New Zealand's perpetual motion approach.

Ireland's last game against the Pumas was a very dour affair, tensions still high among many Irish players who believed some of the Argentinians had, perhaps, celebrated our elimination from the World Cup in 2007 a little too zealously.

With scores tied 3-3 at half-time, a trademark cross-field kick from Ronan O'Gara put in Tommy Bowe for the game's only try. The 17-3 win was important, for it guaranteed Ireland a second pool seeding at next year's World Cup.

But Argentina were without some big players that day, not least Juan Martin Hernandez (missing again tomorrow) and Felipe Contepomi.

They selected Santiago Fernandez, then a domestic player with Hindu Club in Buenos Aires, at out-half for his first cap and -- along with failing to manage the game -- he missed a number of penalty kicks to take a lot of pressure off Ireland on the day.

I don't doubt that the memory of that game will motivate Argentina all the more now.

With rankings at stake (they currently sit one behind us in the IRB list), there is much to play for and it will be interesting to see how players such as O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy and Bowe have recovered from what was clearly a bruising Test against the All Blacks.

Put those names alongside those definitely missing -- Paul O'Connell, Rory Best, Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald -- and it's not hard to see why the Pumas might think this a vulnerable Irish team.

This, then, is a real examination of Ireland's depth. Four tough Tests in as many weeks may seem excessive, but it's precisely the challenge that will face Declan Kidney in New Zealand next September.

Weather permitting, it would be nice to see Ireland continue with the expansive approach that made last weekend's game so enjoyable. I couldn't believe they made the mistake of trying to play 'finger-tip' rugby in dreadful conditions against the Springboks and Samoa.

Historically, Ireland adjust to weather conditions better than most and have won many Test matches -- remember our first victory in many years over Australia at the old Lansdowne Road in November 2002 -- on the basis of that adjustment.

That's what made the tactics in the first two Autumn Internationals so difficult to fathom. Maybe in Dubai they'd have worked. But a wintry Dublin?

Ireland showed last weekend that they can create with ball in hand and more of the same tomorrow should be the order of the day against a Puma team far more comfortable in the trenches than on the pampas.

That said, it's a must-win game too, and that brings extra pressure. In such a situation, trust me, Argentina would not be Ireland's first choice of opponent. It would seem that they have become the team, as Churchill would put it, " ... you wish you never had to think about again. But you do."

Irish Independent

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