Monday 18 February 2019

Five key areas where Ireland's battle with Argentina will be won and lost

Learning lessons of 2015 defeat the key as Schmidt and Co look to finish on a high

Heartache for Ireland against Argentina in the World Cup
Heartache for Ireland against Argentina in the World Cup
Peter O’Mahony leads the players through their paces during Ireland squad training yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Take yourself back, if you can bear it, to that harrowing first quarter of Ireland's World Cup exit at the hands of Argentina in Cardiff.

A blur of blue and white jerseys, men in green looking shell-shocked, hope fading before the hope came and went.

It was the darkest day of Joe Schmidt's time in charge and by far and away the worst performance the team have produced on his watch. There were extenuating circumstances, but it remains a low point.

It was easy in the aftermath to focus on Argentina's width, their tries were scored in the wide channels and they looked to be playing rugby from the gods.

But the word that featured most frequently in Schmidt's post-match debrief was "collision".

Ireland failed to dominate the contact-zone and paid the ultimate price.

Johnny Sexton gets in some kicking practice. Photo: Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton gets in some kicking practice. Photo: Sportsfile

"It's always about being competitive in those collisions. Defensively and offensively," he said yesterday as he reflected on his comments.

The contact zone is the key area in tomorrow's meeting with Argentina. The Pumas thrive on front-foot ball and if Ireland can dominate, they'll be halfway there.

Collision kings

The personnel picked will help matters for a start.

Schmidt yesterday referenced Seán O'Brien being "not prepared to lose collisions".

Ireland's all-Lions back-row weren't involved two years ago, Cian Healy is in far better form, Tadhg Furlong is on the scene while Bundee Aki in the centre is another who rarely takes a backwards step.

Argentina have a collection of large, dynamic forwards whose primary function is to dominate in contact.

Scrummaging used to be their main strength, now it is that physical force in open play.

Human wrecking ball Pablo Matera is a particular threat, his role in that 2015 clash cannot be underestimated.

So, the work in the contact will set the tone. If Matera and Co can put Irish tacklers on the back-foot and drive ball-carriers backwards, it could be a long evening for the home team.

If Ireland can do the opposite, then Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will conduct the orchestra accordingly.

Line-speed pressure

Robbie Henshaw and Devin Toner are both players who get Ireland off the line in defence, so Andy Farrell will be looking for others to bring the energy.

Against South Africa, the effort without the ball was key. The Springboks were relying on the likes of Malcolm Marx and Eben Etzebeth to get them over the gainline, but Ireland put a 'rabbit' on them - rushing out of the line and shutting down their momentum.

Argentina will bring different threats and a more varied game-plan, but it is unlikely that Ireland will be as passive as they were in Cardiff.

With inexperienced wingers, it will be up to the midfield to deny space and limit the exposure for Jacob Stockdale and Adam Byrne.

Ireland will be looking to get up in the Pumas' faces and cause errors that can lead to scores. A team who offloads that often can cough up opportunities.

Set-piece excellence

Devin Toner's absence means that Iain Henderson will be tasked with leading the lineout, an area from which Ireland launch the majority of their attacking plays.

With James Ryan alongside him, the Ulsterman is the leading lock and he will be expected to run a tight ship along with Rory Best.

If Ireland can produce clean ball, then their array of attacking options open up.

They can test the Pumas with a maul that got them some joy against South Africa, or bring the backs into play. With two hard-carriers in midfield and aerial threats out wide, the half-backs have an array of options to play with.

The scrum can be a weapon for Ireland given Argentina's poor performances in their traditional area of strength.

Tighthead Ramiro Herrera is injured, while Marcos Ayerza has retired. The new men are not as proficient.

The Jaguares have one of the worst scrums in Super Rugby, while the Pumas were penalised 18 times at the scrum in the Rugby Championship.

With Healy in destructive form and Furlong consistently outstanding, there is a chance to exert real pressure on the World Cup semi-finalists.

Whether it results in points or field-position, it should give Ireland access into the game.

Discipline

Scrum penalties are only part of the problem for Argentina who gave away 51 penalties, the most in the Championship.

Ireland are normally at their best when they're disciplined and will be counting on coming out on the right side of the penalty count tomorrow.

If they can keep Argentina in their own half, the home side will back themselves to limit their threat while building a score a la the Springbok game.

Mathieu Raynal is an official the Irish players know well and Best will work hard to get on his right side. Argentina have a tendency to pick up yellow cards - they were even reduced to 14 during their dominant period in the quarter-final - and it's up to Ireland to thrive.

Make the most of height

With Byrne and Stockdale on the wings, Ireland have plenty of aerial threat. Throw in Kearney and Sexton and Murray have plenty to aim for.

Ireland's work in the air was crucial against South Africa and, while Argentina's back three will be better than the 'Boks' but there is still scope for both of Ireland's wide-men to make hay.

In particular, Byrne has a strong relationship with Sexton at Leinster that can easily transfer across.

For all that he has work to do in defence, the Naas native has the physical capacity to thrive at this level and Ireland should make use of him where possible.

Whether it's simply turning the Argentineans, getting rid of slow, dirty ball or going for tries, it is an area of strength for Schmidt's side that can lift the Aviva Stadium.

Eddie Jones may have derided it as 'kick and clap', but it works and shouldn't be sniffed at.

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