Irish turn up the heat to freeze out Pumas
THE Pumas were told the journey to Lansdowne Road from their Burlington Hotel base would take 10 minutes, but the freezing weather forced their bus on a tour that turned the short trip into a 40-minute expedition which left tempers frayed.
Whether that was the reason behind their inept opening-half performance or not, it took Santiago Phelan's men 50 minutes to get going and if they had played with the same focus in the first half as they did in the second, perhaps the scoreline would have been a lot closer. Perhaps. The truth is that, even when they did start to put some phases together, the Les Kiss-organised Irish defence was never under too much pressure and Ireland always looked several levels above in their attacking capabilities.
A 20-point win, Ireland's highest over a top-tier nation during Declan Kidney's time in charge, was an eminently satisfying outcome and a good way to end the November series.
The quality of opposition was nowhere near what we witnessed the previous weekend when the All Blacks brought their brand of mesmerising rugby to Dublin, but, as the old maxim goes, you play what is in front of you. And, although Ireland's performance was far from flawless -- the restarts again stood out as a problem area -- there were far more positives than negatives. Starting with the scrum.
The worst-case scenario going in was Tony Buckley getting grilled by the nuggety Rodrigo Roncero and the Pumas using this as platform to cause Ireland pain. However, the Munster tight-head put in an encouraging display in the tight and in the loose and, a couple of early wobbles aside, the Argentinians did not get any concerted edge until Buckley was replaced by Tom Court.
Jonathan Sexton's assured display was another plus. Fed superbly by Peter Stringer, the out-half looked comfortable and outplayed his erstwhile tutor Felipe Contepomi in every department, notably goal-kicking where Sexton landed six kicks from six as opposed to the Puma captain's three from six return.
The front five, restarts aside, were solid -- with hooker Sean Cronin adding to his growing reputation in the loose and the platform they provided allowed the back-row to flourish where Stephen Ferris was at his muscular best. Gordon D'Arcy had a big game in midfield and the backline looked lively, although Geordan Murphy would have welcomed more opportunities to cut loose.
Argentina had the better start when errors handed the early initiative to the visitors. A free-kick from the scrum, Tommy Bowe being turned over in contact and then a Sexton kick out on the full allowed the Pumas to set up in the Ireland half. It led to a series of scrums on the try-line when the visitors had the edge, winning a penalty and opting to lay down a marker with another scrum.
The squeeze was put on again, but good work on Cian Healy's side of the scrum wheeled the Argentina eight with Mark Lawrence rather charitably decreeing that it had "gone 90" when 65 looked a more accurate reading.
It relieved the pressure and Ireland's superiority in the backline was then emphasised by a superb step-and-surge by D'Arcy. Pressure relieved, excellent work by Murphy released Andrew Trimble and when the Ulster man was brought down, an Argentinian indiscretion allowed Jonathan Sexton to knock over the penalty for 3-0 after 12 minutes.
Despite allowing Patricio Albacete to claim the restart, Ireland's superior rugby skills were evident in the face of the Pumas' concerted lack of ambition and the Irish extended their advantage eight minutes later.
It began with excellent line-out possession from Mick O'Driscoll on the visitors' '22,' with the ball moving swiftly to the left; when it came back towards the right-hand touchline, Bowe made a typical panic-inducing incursion, fed Heaslip and the No 8 put Ferris over in the corner (although, as his captain informed him brusquely, the flanker should have touched down closer to the posts). No matter, Sexton nailed the conversion for 10-0 after 20 minutes, a situation you imagine that Kidney would have readily accepted. Another restart was then messed up when Cronin was deemed to have obstructed, only for Felipe Contepomi to miss the penalty.
Good work by Buckley at scrum time earned a penalty and an impressive Cronin surge forced the breakdown transgression with Sexton making it 13-0 just short of the half-hour mark. When their third kick-off reception was botched, it created a foothold that allowed Contepomi to make it 13-3.
Ireland's own drop-outs were going far better and when Trimble claimed his second, Ireland roared back into the score zone with Sexton putting them 16-3 ahead when Roncero transgressed.
The remaining few minutes of the half continued the trends with Ireland failing to claim a restart, executing a threatening backline move, Contepomi missing a penalty and Sexton landing one for 19-3. A 16-point margin was a fair reflection of Ireland's greater willingness to play rugby and Buckley's capacity to provide a scrum platform, while the Pumas were left to reflect on the fact that, despite a fitful performance, the score could have been 19-12 if they had kicked their opportunities.
The encouraging scrummaging performance continued at the start of the second period. The sight of Roncero trudging off disconsolately with 44 minutes on the clock was a testament to the effectiveness of Buckley, but Marcos Ayerza was a good replacement. Contepomi missed his third kick from the touchline as the Pumas became visibly cranky, Mario Ledesma roaring his dissatisfaction at his colleagues.
Martin Scelzo was then replaced at tight-head by Juan Figallo and the difference was immediately noticeable with front-foot scrum ball allowing the a rare sight of the Pumas running with the ball only to be undone by a forward pass from Julio Cabello.
Suddenly, Contepomi and Co decided it was time for expansion and they launched wave after wave of attacks. Amorosino went on a slaloming run which briefly threatened a try, but the Irish scramble defence held firm. The Pumas got some reward when Contepomi made it 19-6 after 58 minutes.
The containment nature of Ireland's second half was demonstrated by the decision to give Sexton a penalty opportunity a foot inside the Argentinian half and the out-half blasted over a wonderful effort and Ireland were 22-6 ahead with less than 15 minutes to go. That became 22-9 when Contepomi replied after sub Tom Court failed to release.
Argentina pressed as the November series ticked towards its conclusion, but the Irish defence, with replacement Denis Leamy making his presence felt, was never less than assured.
Ireland then belatedly rediscovered their verve in attack and Jamie Heaslip celebrated the announcement of his man of the match award with a barnstorming burst. When the ball came back, a delicious dink by Ronan O'Gara put the Pumas in panic mode and Bowe forced the ball over the line with Keith Earls pouncing for a perfectly good touchdown only to be denied by the TMO. But Ireland kept the pressure on and D'Arcy crowned his fine display with a chip and regather over the line, Sexton converting for a 29-9 victory.
Not a bad way to end the November series. The second half may have been a let-down, but a 20-point winning margin was hard to argue with against a side that have continually caused the Irish grief. Something to build on nine games out from the World Cup.
IRELAND -- G Murphy; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (capt, K Earls 68), G D'Arcy, A Trimble; J Sexton (R O'Gara 68), P Stringer (E Reddan 75); C Healy, S Cronin (D Varley 64), T Buckley (T Court 63); D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll (D Toner 71); S Ferris (D Leamy 61), D Wallace, J Heaslip.
ARGENTINA -- M Rodriguez; H Agulla, G Tiesi (L Borges 60), M Bosch, L Amorosino; F Contepomi, N Vergallo (A Lalanine 68); R Roncero (M Ayerza 44), M Ledesma (A Creevy 61), M Scelzo (J Figallo 48); M Galarza (S Guzman 75), Patricio Albacete; G Fessia, J Cabello, JF Lobbe.
REF -- M Lawrence (South Africa).