Wednesday 21 February 2018

Ireland finish season on a high in Argentina to claim Test series

Argentina 17 Ireland 23

Paul O'Connell is tackled by Rodrigo Baez and Manuel Carizza
Paul O'Connell is tackled by Rodrigo Baez and Manuel Carizza

Ruaidhri O'Connor in Tucuman

Ireland’s season concluded with a major fright in northern Argentina as Joe Schmidt’s men just edged out the understrength Pumas to win a first Test series in the South American country.

That’s for the history books and the coach won’t hold the two games that won it in much regard after they struggled to reproduce their Six Nations form against the hosts who punched well above their weight.

After a far from perfect first Test display in Resistencia, Ireland were arguably worse in Tucuman; although Argentina improved over the seven days.

Rhys Ruddock impressed with a  powerful display, while Rob Kearney and Eoin Reddan had strong games as the set-piece more than held its own again.

But, while there were less holes in the defence as a week ago, there were too many players whose thoughts appeared to have drifted towards their upcoming summer break and the execution was poor as a result.

The game took on a similar pattern to the first Test with Ireland establishing an early six point lead and Argentina being reduced to 14 men only to score a spectacular try.

At that stage the tourists were also down a man after Andrew Trimble joined Matias Cortese on the sideline for tackling Manuel Montero without the ball as the Irish scrambled to prevent a try.

How they got there summed up their sloppy first-half display as they threatened early on through Simon Zebo as Sexton ran the show comfortably and punished the home side’s indiscipline with two penalties.

They were again on the front-foot when Darren Cave knocked on in contact in the 17th minute and the Pumas pounced. Nicolas Sanchez chipped ahead and the scrambling Fergus McFadden couldn’t collect the bobbling ball.

Joaquin Tuculet had no such problems and he passed to Montero but before he had gathered Trimble had taken him out. He headed to the sideline and Sanchez got Argentina up and running with the penalty.

Another clever piece of play from Sexton appeared to get Ireland back on track as he cross-kicked to Zebo who smartly chipped in behind for Rob Kearney who couldn’t make the ball, but bundled the sweeping Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino over his own line.

Ireland applied the squeeze and won a penalty, but rather than kick it over from under the posts, Paul O’Connell went for the jugular and re-set. Another penalty came with a warning, but the third Argentinean effort was far stronger and Jamie Heaslip broke and gave a forward pass to Chris Henry.

Still deep in the home ’22, Ireland couldn’t have felt too vulnerable, but Argentinean captain Martin Landajo spotted a gap and raced clear into Irish territory before feeding Amorosino who was stopped short by Kearney.

Argentina arrived with numbers and Ireland were in real trouble as they moved it left and Joaquin Tuculet stepped inside Chris Henry to score under the posts.

Sanchez’s conversion confirmed the 10 point swing and, despite some stellar efforts from Rhys Ruddock and Kearney with ball in hand as well as a third Sexton penalty, the tourists went in behind at the break as their final maul fell short and Ruddock knocked on to allow the Pumas off the hook.

Devin Toner caught the blame for a sluggish first-half by being hauled off at half-time and Sexton missed a kickable chance to put Ireland back in front almost immediately after the restart as Ireland continued to act as their own worst enemies.

They almost broke free when, playing with advantage, Sexton cross-kicked to Trimble who collected, chipped over Montero and was caught by a brilliant saving tackle by Tuculet. Ireland didn’t protect their ball at the ruck and again let the hosts off the hook.

Finally, they got their break on 51 minutes as they used their maul as a decoy, allowing Reddan to peel off and feed the ball inside to Zebo who danced over untouched.

Sexton converted to give Ireland a six point lead once again and they almost gave themselves more breathing space when Ruddock bust a tackle and freed his hands for an offload to Cave who was tackled short of the line and was penalised for holding on after reaching to touch down and coming just short.

Jack McGrath was introduced for Dave Kilcoyne on the loosehead side of the scrum as Argentina appeared to tire but they lost Chris Henry and Johnny Sexton to injury soon after to disrupt their rhythm.

That roused the local crowd and Argentina scented blood with a scrum in Ireland’s ’22 but the visitors got the shove on and took it against the head before Pascal Gauzere awarded a penalty.

They worked their way up the other end where the Pumas went off their feet but Ian Madigan, on for Sexton who appeared to suffer a heavy blow to the head area, missed a difficult penalty to keep it a one-score game.

They turned down their next in-range penalty and went to touch, this time getting their reward when, after a series of strong carries and quick recycles, Madigan brilliantly cut through two defenders to score under the posts and convert himself to make the game safe with seven minutes remaining.

That allowed Schmidt introduce Noel Reid and James Cronin for debuts, while Rob Herring and Kieran Marmion followed for their first and second caps, with hooker Herring coming on on the blindside for Ruddock.

Argentina almost got back in range with a maul that was held up over the line, but they did get Amorosino over in the closing stages from a well-executed scrum move.

Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias converted but it was too late for a further comeback.

It was fitting that they ended on a high, because the Pumas had given their all in both games against a far stronger Ireland side.

They will take much from this series, but Schmidt was left with much to ponder as he jets off to New Zealand to catch the end of the Junior World Cup.

ARGENTINA – J Tuculet (M Orlanda 55); LG Amorosino, J De la Fuente, G Ascarate (SG Iglesias 61) , M Montero; N Sanchez (J Tuculet 65), M Landajo (capt); LN Paz (R Herrerra 68), M Cortese (S Iglesias Valdez 21) (B Postiglioni 63), R Herrera; M Carizza, T Lavanini (M Alemanno 69); R Baez, T De la Vega, A Ahuali de Chazal (J Ortega Desio 64).

IRELAND – R Kearney; A Trimble, F McFadden, D Cave (N Reid 73), S Zebo; J Sexton (I Madigan 65), E Reddan (K Marmion 77); D Kilcoyne (J McGrath 57), R Best, M Ross (J Cronin 73); D Toner (I Henderson h-t), P O’Connell (capt), R Ruddock (R Herring 77), C Henry (J Murphy 63), J Heaslip.

Referee: P Gauzere (France)

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